July 10, 2014

Umoja Student Nominee Visits the White House

Tenzin_with_Michelle_Obama.jpgSullivan High School Class of 2014 graduate, Tenzin Choenyi, was one of only 10 young people chosen from across the country to go to the White House this week to meet with Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education and First Lady Michelle Obama. Umoja’s Partnership Development Specialist, Aubrie Tossmann, was also lucky enough to travel with Tenzin on this trip of a lifetime.

The meeting and discussion, part of the First Lady’s Reach Higher Initiative to increase college access for all young people, was designed to help inform the White House and the Department of Education about young people’s educational experiences and the challenges they face in getting to college. The students were asked to tell their stories in hopes that, in Secretary Duncan’s words, these stories of success become the norm for young people, rather than the exception.

As Aubrie described the experience, “Secretary Duncan prompted the students with one simple question: ‘How do we help young people be successful?’ It's important for people like the First Lady and the Secretary of Education to hear from students like Tenzin because their policies and initiatives impact young people everywhere. The officials need to ask: how are these policies supportive if you don’t know English or are temporarily homeless or are being abused? The more these influential people can be influenced by remarkable young people and their persistence, the more these success stories actually become the norm.”

Tenzin’s story is truly that of persistence and success. He came to the United States just four short years ago as a Tibetan refugee living in Nepal. He moved into a small studio apartment with his whole family and enrolled at his neighborhood high school, Roger C. Sullivan High School, where students speak over 30 first languages. For most students, the transition to a new school is difficult, but when you add on Tenzin’s inability to speak or understand English, and uncertainty about how to get the right supports, odds were stacked against Tenzin from the start.

The trip to the White House helped me believe that as long as I work hard like I always have been, success will follow my path. This trip gave me a new, profound confidence in myself, which I have always lacked.

One of the key themes shared by the young people who went to the White House was the importance of having adults in their lives who told them they had potential. Every student’s story involved at least one person who believed in them until they were able to believe in themselves, whether it was a school counselor, teacher, mentor, or family member.

Tenzin’s story was no exception. Tenzin found a support system at Sullivan High School, through Umoja Student Development Corporation, and in his community that helped him look towards the future. He didn't want his poor English skills to hold him back from doing just as well in school as his American classmates. In his telling of his story, as he explains the impact of seeing other freshman students around him not taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, “When I saw them in these other classes, I knew that ESL was not my ceiling.” Tenzin did not want his identity as an English Language Learner to limit him, and luckily his counselor agreed and he was able to move out of ESL classes fairly quickly.

Three and a half short years after his move to the States, Tenzin has come a long way from speaking almost no English to a National Honors Society student who ended his last semester of high school with a 5.0 GPA. He was also one of just 2 students citywide to receive a competitive corporate scholarship from Protiviti to support his future education at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota studying Economics, or possibly now Political Science after having spent two days immersed in Washington, D.C. culture and history!

Tenzin’s experience in Washington, D.C. also impacted him beyond just career ideas, as he explains, “The trip to the White House helped me believe that as long as I work hard like I always have been, success will follow my path. This trip gave me a new, profound confidence in myself, which I have always lacked. And last, it taught me that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.”

Click here to read the blog post from the U.S. Department of Education about the visit.

SEE MORE photos below of Tenzin and Aubrie's Trip to the white house: