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We are the Silver Bullet: Reflections on an AmeriCorps VISTA Year

May 20, 2016

Sue Li HeadshotToday’s guest blog is written by AmeriCorps VISTA alum Sue Li who currently works as the Assistant Manager of School-Community Partnerships with Boston Public Schools. It is part of AmeriCorps Alums’ REALTalk series on race, equity, and AmeriCorps alumni as leaders.

What do you want to be when you grow up? That is one of the toughest questions every kid gets asked a million times in their lifetime. The truth is it’s okay if your answer is constantly changing. Every single person is a work in progress. No matter whether you are five, 15, or 50, you are still growing, and you may have a different answer at every age. I have never been that person who had her life figured out. When I was five, I wanted to be a teacher. When I was 15, I said I wanted to be a pharmacist.

As an undergraduate, I studied Biochemistry at Central Michigan University. I also was involved with our university’s Leadership Institute, Residence Life, First Year Experience, Admissions Office, Circle K International, Alternative Breaks and Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center. I was also blessed with an opportunity to complete a semester of the Disney College Program at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland California. You name a club or program at CMU; I probably did it, or thought about participating in it.

Sue at Central Michigan UniversityReflecting on all of my extracurricular involvements at Central Michigan University, I realized that I had spent more and more time volunteering and developing my fellow students and residents than anything else. My dream to be a pharmacist faded away.  I did not want to spend all my time in the lab or doing research. I wanted to make a difference.

After I graduated from Central Michigan University,  I found a  chance to make a difference at Walt Disney World. At 25, I aspired to be a Disney Ambassador who would serve as a spokesperson for the company. I started out working as a Guest Relations cast member in Magic Kingdom and became very involved with Disney VoluntEARS. I volunteered with countless local nonprofits to make our community a better place.

While I loved my time at Magic Kingdom, the Guest Relations role gave me a different perspective on human interactions. I realized that too often people are not really kind and nice to each other. What broke me even more was that sometimes parents are not necessarily setting the best example for kids. I was determined to help change this, and find ways to connect all kids to role models in addition to their parents and to better educate them as they developed.

At 25, I took off my Disney hat, decided to give a year to serve our country, and joined AmeriCorps VISTA. I would have never in my wildest dreams have thought a year of national service would lead me to discover my passion. I fell in love with the people, the city, and the job. Now I have a new answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

AmeriCorps VISTA group picture


As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I served with the Office of School-Community Partnerships at Boston Public Schools headquarters. My project during my year of service was the pilot and implementation of the new partnership platform: It is a web-based partnership platform that aims to leverage effective school-community partnerships to help close opportunity and achievement gaps, and support the improvement of school quality. I am thrilled to say that after 18 months of hard work, this platform is going district-wide this June.

Serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA brought its own set of unique challenges and also an incredible amount of reward. It was extremely challenging in every way financially and mentally. Living in poverty and serving in poverty was probably one of the bravest decisions I have made, which my family never understood then and still does not. The truth is that this was a year of soul-searching and self-discovery. It is only when you have nothing that you realize you have everything to gain. I was so passionate about my work at Boston Public Schools. I did everything I could to the best of my abilities because of that passion, not because of how much I was getting paid. It was a year of getting to know myself and realizing what was important to me. I finally know what I stand for!

I stand to fight for education equity. I see so many passionate people and organizations who want to make a difference, but there is still so much inequity in the City of Boston. Your neighborhood still determines what kind of educational resources you have, and in turn, this affects your career path. I work to make sure that one day every child in this nation will receive an excellent education regardless of their zip code. We are able to change children’s trajectories. That is why I did not even hesitate when I was offered an employment opportunity at the end of my VISTA year. I have found exactly where I am meant to be, and where I can spend my days in an organization that I believe in and that stands for what I do.

Sue Li with Boston Public SchoolsWhile the road ahead of us is no easy path, we must balance reality with eternal optimism. We should encourage our kids to be dreamers and visionaries, and all our work should pave the path for them to become dreamers. One day, our kids will not be judged by the neighborhood they are from, because all those communities will have the greatest teachers and schools.

Even though I know what I stand for, I still come back to this centuries-old question: “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Although I am a work in progress, and will still be growing until the day I die, I do have an answer. After my year of AmeriCorps, I realized I want to be the Chief of Staff for Boston Public Schools, and eventually the Secretary of Education.

Every child in the U.S. deserves our continued commitment to advancing excellence and equity. Part of that commitment means, supporting educators, elevating the teaching profession, and improving college affordability and completion rates. Like education leaders such as Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee have said before, there is no silver bullet or Superman in solving our education issues in poverty. They are right, no silver bullet. Because that silver bullet is us: the teachers, students, and educational advocates. Superman and Super Girl are sitting in our classrooms every day and walking our halls, and an education should be their right, not a privilege.

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