This is your standard-issue, heartbreakingly inspiring story.
This year, 1,000 students across the country were awarded the Gates Millennium Scholarship. Three of them came from one tiny public school in East Oakland. Maribel, Rattana and Eliott are just three examples of the kinds of exceptional young people coming out of Life Academy and out of Oakland in general. Their stories give us a glimpse into the lives of our city’s youth.
Maribel, Rattana and Eliott were all raised by parents who grew up outside the US.
Rattana’s Cambodian-born mother raised him and his five siblings on her own. “We all help around the house, of course, but… I don’t know how she managed it,” he said, adding with a laugh, “My mom is my best friend.”
All three described a sense of responsibility that was generated from their parents. “My parents didn’t let me have a job in high school, they said school was my job,” said Maribel, explaining why she is eager to make something of her parents’ investment in her. “I knew I didn’t want them to try to help me pay for school, so I applied to lots of scholarships.”
Maribel says she can remember the moment the future became real for her. She was watching the documentary Which Way Home with her family, which follows unaccompanied child migrants headed for the US. “I just realized what I wanted for myself, which was to go to college and be able to take care of people in my community.” She has her sights set on Public Health, the intersection of science and sociology, with a practical application for helping people.
“So many people are just caught in the day-to-day,” said Eliott, explaining how it takes a shift in thinking to plan for the future.
“And when there’s a lot of difficulties at home,” added Rattana, “school can be a low priority.”
So what made them different? All three gushed — seriously, their stark earnestness could melt the coldest heart — about the teachers at Life Academy. “Their enthusiasm just makes you enthusiastic about learning,” said Maribel.
“The school is so small,” added Rattana, “that it’s based on personal relationships, it’s not like you can slip through the cracks.”
“Yeah,” Eliott chimed in, “the career counselors will literally catch me in the hallway to ask why I’m slipping.”
So, big surprise: students do well when teachers have enough capacity to make personal investments in them and hold them accountable for it — regardless of how few resources the students have access to outside of school.
Eliott and Rattana both plan to attend UC Berkeley for some field of life sciences, and Maribel will head to Willamette University in Oregon. Where do they plan to live when they finish up? Right back here.
“Oakland is home,” Maribel says while the other two nod assuredly. This devotion to Oakland may come as a slight surprise to some given the characterizations the students make of their beloved home: None of them feel particularly free to walk around their neighborhoods. “I wouldn’t walk, like if I was going to a friend’s house I would get a ride. I walked to the store one time,” said Maribel, “and it was the most uncomfortable experience because of getting called out by all the men.”
All three say they may have been sheltered or raised by parents with an outsized sense of danger but they maintain that it’s typical to avoid being out in the street alone, even during the day. “There are some people at the school that would feel comfortable [hanging out in the street] maybe, but only a few, and I would know which ones it would be,” she said.
Still, they have their hearts set on Oakland, and their allegiances lie with the community bases that raised them.