Alumni Post – Life in the Trenches: Digging My Way Out

JT Su


April 6, 2015

JT is a Global Citizen Year alum (Ecuador ’14), and a Gates Millennium Scholar studying Global Liberal Studies, Urban Education, and Spanish at NYU. The following post comes froma presentation he delivered at the Ford Foundation in New York City on April 2, 2015.


Six years ago‰ÛÓin the course of working my way through school, I found myselffalling into the trenches‰ÛÓlost. I felt like I had to be like other people. I felt like I had to meettheir expectations. I grew up in a small suburb outside of Los Angeles, California‰ÛÓone 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 its competitiveness. 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. Would people judge my intelligence based on where I wanted to go? Or what I wanted to do? Growing up, I always saw myself pursuing a career in education or non-profit management. Better yet, I just wanted to dosomething that would allow me to break free from the limiting environment where I grew up, but my values and goals were very different thanthose 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‰ÛÓtaking challenging courses, putting myself out there with different extracurricular activities‰ÛÓall to make myself look “better” on paper for the anticipated college and job applications I would be filling out in a couple of years. When people asked me what I wanted to do, I always felt shameful of saying what I truly wanted. My aspirations didn’t seem “right.” I would then tell everyone I wanted to be a lawyer, trying toseek approval from others, though I always carried my doubts within. 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 full scholarship through the Gates Foundation. However, I was completely burnt out. I had beenrunning 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, by some stroke of luck, I heard about a program called Global Citizen Year‰ÛÓa global bridge year program which recruits, trains, and sends a diverse, national corps of high school graduates each year to Ecuador, Senegal, Brazil, India‰ÛÓand soon in other parts of Asia and the Middle East‰ÛÓto 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‰ÛÓdying of thirst‰ÛÓuntil I finally saw that cool drink of water. I told the people at NYU that college would have to wait. Instead of going to school, 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 can be defined by one word:craziness. 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 learningfor 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 becomebetter at that craft. It was something that washard, but I loved it.

When I completed my Global Citizen Year, I took anotherrisk by teaching for a summer program called Breakthrough Collaborative inTexas. I taught ninth grade geometry to very low-income Latino students. Iloved it. Although teaching wasn’t necessarily “easy,”itmade me realize that I could have a tangible effect on other people, and I valued that aboveanything else.

I am currently a first-year student at NYU. I am studying Global Studies with a liberal arts focus, Urban Education, and Spanish. The biggest difference I see in myself now is that I feel better prepared for college. Global Citizen Year allowed me to find my purpose. I amso grateful for my Global Citizen Year in Ecuador andso eager to see the bridge year movement grow.

JT Su