When he was a soccer player at Como Park High School in St. Paul several years ago, Zach Lee’s teammates were his good friends, and many of them were English-language learners – kids who were born in other countries or who spoke another language at home.
Observing them and their experiences made an impression on him and made him begin to think about his own privilege.
“Some of my best friends on the soccer team were refugees from Thailand, or they were Hmong or East African, and I was just exposed to a lot of different life experiences through my friends,” said Zach. “They are some of the kindest and best people I’ve ever met, and they opened my mind to education and made me really think about my position as a relatively affluent white person in society.”
When he went to college at St. Olaf in Northfield, the avid outdoorsman majored in Environmental Studies. But he often thought about the experiences of his friends, and he wondered if teaching English-language learners might truly be his calling.
Discovering City of Lakes AmeriCorps
Upon graduation in 2017, Zach decided to accept a job offer to work on a farm, and during that year, he also spent time traveling and thinking about his career. While at St. Olaf, he had learned about an AmeriCorps program in the Twin Cities that focused on serving English-language learners navigate middle school – City of Lakes AmeriCorps. One year after graduation, Zach applied, and immediately after being placed at Anwatin Middle School in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis, he knew he had made a good choice.
Anwatin Middle School is socioeconomically and racially diverse and is the only dual-language Spanish immersion school in the city — meaning Spanish-speaking students and native English speakers (as well as students whose might have a different first language) attend together.
Zach’s AmeriCorps service entailed helping newcomer students who had recently arrived from Central America adapt to American classrooms, and he also served in an 8th grade classroom with a teacher mentor.
“I was struck by how many different ways I was impressed by the students I got to work with. It felt lucky to be caught off guard and surprised at how their brilliance shows up in different ways,” he said. “For example, with the newcomer students, making progress on their phonics or reading simple sentences — you could see those steps every day. But you could also observe a difference in how they approach school or certain classes — when they figured out that they really had talent at certain things in their math or social studies classes. It’s really cool to see their excitement.”
How AmeriCorps Service Inspires His Future
After realizing he’d discovered his future career path during his service in City of Lakes AmeriCorps, Zach applied and was admitted to a graduate program at the University of Minnesota where he’s pursuing an M.A. in Education and a teaching license. Because he was able to organize his AmeriCorps hours to be completed primarily during the last school year, he only served one day a week over the summer while spending the other four days taking classes on campus.
Zach completed his AmeriCorps service with City of Lakes in August, and he’s now funding graduate school in part with his AmeriCorps education stipend. He is also student teaching at Bryn Mawr Elementary School, which is adjoining to Anwatin Middle School, so he’s able to easily stay in touch with his former mentor teachers. Zach credits the City of Lakes program and its leaders with helping him realize that teaching English-language learners is his passion. He said the program also provided inspiration and grounding that he will take into his future as a teacher.
“Not only did I meet some of the most amazing kids ever, but the experience also made me reflect a lot on my whiteness in our racialized society,” Zach said. “I was really amazed by my AmeriCorps fellow members and the support network within City of Lakes. It was tremendous and I can’t say enough about how our bosses gave us resources and support but also challenged us to reflect on our roles in schools.”
Learn more about how to sign up to serve in City of Lakes AmeriCorps.