Miss America, Mentors & Our Students

Today’s blogger is one of City Year New York’s Communication Project Leaders, Susan Varghese. She served in San Antonio, Texas for her corps year and she’s now based out of our New York office. You can see more of her writing on her portfolio or follow her on Twitter.

“Miss America crowns 1st winner of Indian descent.” While I usually don’t care about beauty pageants or who wins for that matter, this particular headline seemed to resonate.

Much like pageant winner, Nina Davuluri, I’m ethnically Indian and I’m an American. I’m proud of both, but it took a long time for me to feel that way.  My parents are immigrants who were born and raised in south India and made the move to the great state of New Jersey in the eighties. They sacrificed, worked hard and juggled a delicate balance of the Indian and American cultures in which my brothers and I simultaneously grew up in.

As hard as my parents tried, for most of my childhood it was hard to find the pride in my heritage, in the color of my skin – which was different than most of my classmates – and in myself.  After Davuluri’s win, I wondered if my perception would have changed as a child  if I saw more women that looked like me on television, winning pageants, and fitting society’s standards of what “beauty” meant. If all you see are blonde-haired, blue-eyed barbie dolls at the toy store, it becomes harder to see where you fit in.

Like many other kids, I was teased and I didn’t have someone tell me that my worth is not defined by my unruly curly hair, the color of my skin or how many friends I had. So I grew up thinking that it was. If it wasn’t for my mentor in high school, I may have gone down a very different path in life. I was lucky. But it shouldn’t depend on luck and no one should feel uncomfortable in who they are. For the thousands of kids who drop out of school every day, they don’t always have someone believing in them, showing that them that they are more than just their appearance, more than the stereotypes they get boxed into, more than the opinions of their peers and more than their circumstances.

Shortly after Nina Davuluri’s win, there was everything from a slew of racial slurs to the apathetic remarks about it “just” being a beauty pageant. But, Davuluri’s title in a beauty pageant doesn’t dismiss her accomplishments in medicine, just as her ethnicity doesn’t dismiss the fact that she’s still an American.  Granted, she may not be a presidential candidate or the feminists’ archetype, but there are still thousands of little girls looking up to Davuluri. She is still viewed as a role model.

But, role models for young women and girls don’t have to just be what they see on TV, in a pageant or even the people writing hateful comments online. At City Year, we are national volunteers who tutor, mentor and role model to keep kids in school and on track to graduate. Our three roles are intertwined and essential ; tutoring without the bonding, trust and encouragement that comes with a mentorship doesn’t create a lasting impact. And as mentors and role models who serve full-time in schools, we have the ability to change the way students view others who are different from them, as well as shed light on our students’ own self-worth and perception.

For me, the City Year slogan, ‘give a year, change the world,’ doesn’t necessarily mean solving world hunger and creating world peace in a year, but that we are actually able to change the world by cultivating and encouraging the world’s future leaders. That comes with a lot of responsibility; not only do we have a role in influencing them to be kind, powerful and confident young men and women, but we have to make them realize that who they are is enough and that someday, they can be the “1st” to accomplish something great, too.