Success shouldn’t be defined by consistently earning Highest Honor Roll or being the number one student in my class. Success, at least to me, is the feeling I get when I realize the work I’m doing is benefiting my community.
Learner, Iowa BIG
There is so much silence I can practically hear crickets chirping (if only they weren’t nocturnal). Out of the corner of my eye, I see a girl braiding her brown hair and a boy sleeping on his desk with drool pooling beneath his mouth. Ew. I’m sitting at a brown desk in the back of a bland, white-walled classroom, getting an ‘A’ in yet another class, even though the teacher’s words are going in one ear and out the other. You might think I’m having a bad dream, but I’m just a typical American teenager, living a typical day at a typical high school.
For ten years, I’ve ridden the same old, squeaky bus to go through the motions of an eight-period school day. Eventually, I hop back on that yellow, narrow box of a bus filled with crazed children to go back home. With each passing year, the days get more and more uneventful and colorless.
I have always excelled in the traditional classroom—4.0 GPA, in the Gifted and Talented student program, and liked by just about every teacher. It’s like my brain was wired for memorization—exactly what I needed to pass my tests with flying colors. If I were to call myself anything based on my performance at the traditional school, it would have been “successful.” But time went on, and when I became a freshman my only motivations for going to school were getting to chat with friends during class and going to volleyball practice after eighth period. Academically speaking, I was tired of writing the same papers, creating the same boring presentations, and staring at the same white walls all day, every day.
Sharing a workspace with people that creative and successful made me feel like I was more than just one in a class of 382 at my high school.
Learner, Iowa BIG
After countless dreary classes and uninspiring learning styles, I heard about a unique opportunity for students in the Cedar Rapids area—Iowa BIG. This learner-centered high school claimed to transform learners into makers, designers, storytellers, and social entrepreneurs who interact with organizations, business partners, and the overall community. It couldn’t be worse than my traditional classes, so I applied and was accepted to start the program at the beginning of my sophomore year.
The following August, the time came for my first day at BIG, which was in a building shared with a multi-million dollar company in the center of downtown Cedar Rapids—the Geonetric building. Already, I felt important.
Sharing a workspace with people that creative and successful made me feel like I was more than just one in a class of 382 at my high school. I was trusted to work efficiently and professionally side-by-side with real adults in the real world, and that was something to be excited about!
I had absolutely no idea what my passions were. In traditional school, I was practically told how to feel and what to think about every subject. I had never been asked to have passions of my own.
Learner, Iowa BIG
I walked into the sunny, open foyer of the tall, brick building and made my way back to the BIG space, which was overflowing with kids from all over Cedar Rapids. The mentors welcomed us and explained the program in depth, taking the time to outline what our first few weeks would look like—researching and choosing projects in the community we would be interested in working on.
I was immediately taken aback. There were no rules? No time limits? No assigned groups or projects? I sat at a table with bright blue chairs next to people I didn’t even know, and I was expected to choose what I was interested in without someone telling me. Am I understanding this correctly?
I skimmed through the projects, attempting to imagine myself doing one project after another, but I couldn’t. I had absolutely no idea what my passions were. In traditional school, I was practically told how to feel and what to think about every subject. I had never been asked to have passions of my own.
That night, I went home in tears, explaining to my parents that Iowa BIG wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to try it anymore. It was unclear and dumb. They encouraged me to give it time. It had only been one day. I needed to stick with it for a bit longer. But, I could tell it was even more unclear to them what BIG was about and why I was getting high school credit to be there.
Most importantly, I was absolutely loving my learning.
Learner, Iowa BIG
Despite it all, the next day and the day after, I went back to BIG. Days turned into weeks, and I continued searching for projects until it seemed like everyone knew what they were doing except me. I finally threw myself into two projects I thought I could deal with for a while. At the back of my mind, I knew it would never work.
I couldn’t have been more wrong! Before I knew it, I was attending weekly team meetings and connecting with community partners in coffee shops and fancy places of business. I was communicating with new people every week, coming up with bold changes to make in my community. Most importantly, I was absolutely loving my learning.
I spent my entire sophomore year passionately working on a project called Humans of Cedar Rapids. Similar to the popular Humans of New York, my team’s goal was to share stories from people around the city with the entire Cedar Rapids community, as well as to encourage the gift of listening and empathy. We would walk through the streets of Cedar Rapids, stopping people and asking if they would be willing to tell us their story—whatever that meant for them.
Being involved in this project, I started working on an Elderly Series. This series was partnered up with another about “young minds.” The purpose was to contrast the difference between the new minds of kids with the wise minds of elders. Right away, I jumped at the idea of talking to people with heaps of stories to tell and experiences to share.
On one of my very first interviews of the series, at a local nursing home, I met a chatty, joyful woman named Helen. Helen was small with curly gray hair, glasses, and a beaming smile. She used to travel the world with her husband, so her living space in the retirement community was covered in photos of animals in the Grand Canyon, beautiful waterfalls, and photos of the two of them (looking a little younger) posing in front of many tourist attractions.
Helen’s laugh was contagious. She welcomed me with a loving heart and a willing mind to share some of her most prized memories. While Helen was so lovely, she was just one of many wonderful people I had the pleasure of meeting throughout this process. Being involved with this series opened my eyes to how incredibly beautiful humans are and how we all have a story or two to share with the world.
As the school year was wrapping up, my Humans of CR team and I spent a week creating a mural in downtown Cedar Rapids as a final celebration of our year of stories. The mural was beautifully designed and included the faces of people we had interviewed. We spent long days and even longer nights living in coats of paint with a ragged paintbrush in one hand and a twenty-one-ounce Red Bull in the other.
On a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon, the outdoor space across from NewBo Market was filled with my closest friends, family, teachers, local news crews—people from all over the community—and of course my new friend, Helen, for the unveiling of our mural. It was a wonderful tribute to not only the high school seniors on our team but to all the different human beings that live in this place we call home. To top it all off, this entire process was filmed by XQ and was nationally televised during XQ Super School Live last September. I would have never thought I would be shown on national television on all the major network stations in the country; yet, there I was.
Now, I am a junior at Prairie High School part-time and a second-year Iowa BIG learner. My Iowa BIG experience has inspired me to consider majoring in Education once I am in college. I would love to be an elementary teacher in a learner-centered environment or use my degree in another way that will be helpful to any student or teacher I can reach. I want to prove to people that education is not just sitting in a classroom. I want to show learning can be open-walled, flexible, and specific to any learner’s needs.
Iowa BIG has blessed me with fulfilling opportunities, morphed me into who I am today and want to become tomorrow, allowed me to discover my passions, and introduced me to countless people along the way. Now, I see success in a whole new light.
Success shouldn’t be defined by consistently earning Highest Honor Roll or being the number one student in my class. Success, at least to me, is the feeling I get when I realize the work I’m doing is benefiting my community. It’s the way I feel when I’m in a meeting and for once, don’t have to alter my thoughts and ideas to fit someone else’s. Success is making a difference in a world for someone beyond myself.
I admire and thank each and every one of the staff at BIG for pushing me far outside my comfort zone and helping me expand my horizons, all while helping me build my own definition of success. Because of them, the walls around me are no longer white. In fact, the walls are gone. The sky is my limit, and because of Iowa BIG, I’ve learned to reach a little bit higher each day to get there.