Digging My Way Out

By Jonathan Timothy Su (Ecuador ’14, New York University)


This video comes from a presentation by JT Su at the NYU Global Engagement Symposium. In it JT discusses his bridge year, which he spend teaching English in rural Ecuador with Global Citizen Year and later teaching geometry to Latino students from a low-income community in Texas. The article below comes from a presentation JT delivered at the Ford Foundation in New York City on April 2, 2015.

In the course of working my way through high school, I found myself falling into the trenches—lost. I grew up in a small suburb outside of Los Angeles, California—one of the top ten “most Asian populated” areas of LA. There was little diversity in my school. My school was known throughout our area for its “tradition of academic excellence,” which was also correlated with competitiveness. There was a very big culture of honor, in which every student had to be the best at whatever they did. I spent my entire life running on this academic treadmill, doing things solely because they would look good on a college application. I consistently felt like I had to meet some sort of societal expectation. My parents, teachers, and friends would often ask me the inevitable questions that surrounded my entire life: “…so where do you want to go to college? Where do you see yourself going career-wise?”



These questions haunted me. Growing up, I had many career aspirations that would allow me to break free from the limiting environment where I grew up, but my values and goals were very different than those of most of my classmates. My career aspirations weren’t particularly “successful” career options or big “money-makers.” Thus, I began to shape my entire high school career based around making myself more “college-driven” to fit in with the rest of my peers—taking challenging courses, putting myself out there with different extracurricular activities—all to make myself look “better” on paper for the anticipated college and job applications I would be filling out in a couple of years. Learning didn’t seem “fun” anymore as it should have been, and this was not a particularly healthy behavior choice. This was my life in the trenches. I eventually got accepted to one of the best schools in the nation, NYU, and later found out I received a generous full scholarship through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The hard work I put in at a competitive high school worked in getting me into a great college with a great scholarship, but I was completely burnt out. I had been running on this academic treadmill for years now, lost, pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and I was unhappy.


So how did I dig myself out?


My senior year, while browsing through Facebook one day, I saw an ad for a program called Global Citizen Year, a global bridge year program which recruits, trains, and sends a diverse, national corps of high school graduates each year to Ecuador, Senegal, Brazil, Indiaand soon to other parts of Asia and the Middle Eastto live with host families in local communities while working on apprenticeships. I couldn’t imagine a better fit for someone like me, who wanted to regain my love of learning so I could make the most of college when I got there. It was almost as if I were trapped in a desert—dying of thirst—until I finally saw that cool drink of water. I told the people at NYU that college would have to wait. Instead of preparing for my first year of college like all of my friends, I got on a plane and flew to Ecuador, a country I knew nothing about. I moved into a small, yellow room upstairs in a house with four seamstress sisters in the Andes Mountains, while teaching Environmental Education and English at a local school.


My Global Citizen Year was one of the craziest life experiences I’ve encountered thus far, but I learned many lessons. As the year went by, I started to do things not for the sake of trying to please other people. Instead of trying to define myself through others, I wanted to find my own voice. I started to do things because I wanted to do them and find out how much I was capable of. I rediscovered my love of learning for the sake of learning. I developed a confidence that I should live life happy with my own craft without having to please anyone else. Apprenticing at a school in Ecuador gave me a clearer picture of where I wanted to take my life. I found out teaching was challenging, but it inspired me everyday to go to school and try to become better at that craft. It was something that was hard, but I loved it.


When I completed my Global Citizen Year, I took another risk by teaching for a summer program called Breakthrough Collaborative in Texas. I taught ninth grade geometry and a color guard explorations course to very low-income Latino students, having never interacted with Latino students coming from my homogenous hometown. I loved it. Although teaching wasn’t necessarily “easy,” it made me realize that I could have a tangible effect on other people, and I valued that above anything else.


The biggest difference I saw in myself after my bridge year is that I felt better prepared for college. My bridge year allowed me to find my purpose and live life with more meaning. It allowed me to see that I should learn for the sake of learning rather than for what others want or expect from me. I am so incredibly grateful for Global Citizen Year and Breakthrough Collaborative, and I am so eager to see the bridge year movement grow.