What Do I Need Next?

With 11 days left until graduation, I’m still finding it hard to answer the most frequently asked question around this time – “What are you doing after City Year?”

What am I doing next?

While cleaning my room, finding my planner from last year, I didn’t think that I was going to discover something that felt humorously coincidental. I found a list titled: 5 Things I need Next. When I wrote this in January of 2016, I had no idea what I wanted to do and didn’t know where to start in figuring it out. I had ideas floating around, but didn’t know what my heart or mind was really telling me. It makes me chuckle a bit that that’s where I am again. Right now. Less than two weeks away from graduation.

It was my Program Manager at the time who told me to make this list to help me narrow down and hopefully get a better idea of what I wanted next. She told me to think about how I want to grow and what I would need to have in what ever I did next to feel like I was growing. In all honesty, I don’t recall how I came to write down the items on the list, but when I recently reviewed the list, I asked myself, “did I get this from my year as a Team Leader?” Here’s the list and how I think I did:

Five Things I Need Next:

  1. Development of Communication Skills – in person and other media
    • Yes, I certainly got this. Every single day, I’ve had to adapt my communication to the wide range of people that I’m interacting with. From sweet Kindergartners who don’t know how to form a line to fifth graders who are just misunderstood. To near-peers who had to be gradually released into the work and to professionals who have years of experience under their belts. I’ve also developed my communication skills through this blog! I wanted a way to remember my experience and also be able to put into words what I’m going through in this second year of service.
  2. Mission involves empowering others through knowledge and self-awareness
    • Yes, most definitely. I love that everyone really wins in City Year. The people in City Year are always seeking ways to grow through knowledge and self-awareness. I’ve learned more about myself this year in so many ways – both the good and the bad. I’ve embraced it all and my confidence has grown tremendously. Now, I try to incorporate ways others can learn more about themselves through casual conversation or through deep reflection. Or both!
  3. Value teamwork, creativity, and communication
    • Yes, to the max! Any time I’ve worked with others in planning an event, facilitating a meeting, or even coming up with a warm-up – teamwork, creativity, and communication have always been the key to success. Through it all, I’ve learned who I work best with and also how to adjust my approach in working with others who I don’t work so well with. Always learning!
  4. Opportunity to receive/provide mentorship
    • Ohhhh yes. I’ve had an official mentor and also informal mentors who offer just as good of insight and advice on anything related to work, relationships, and overall life. I’ve been so fortunate to be surrounded by so many great individuals who come from all walks of life. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be surrounded by such quality people in a work community ever again, to be honest. I’ve also been able to provide mentorship to the team that I lead. Each month, I had one-on-ones where I would take advantage of the time I had with them to get to know them and have them talk to me about in and out of service topics. The amount of trust, productivity, and joy that resulted from each one-on-one is something I’m definitely proud of.
  5. Utilize my skill in relationship-building and prior experiences
    • Yup yup! This sort of goes off of the previous one. My first-year experience in City Year definitely prepared me in working with students once again and I was even able to share some of my strategies and previous work with the team and even the entire Corps at times.  My experience as a Peer Mentor in college prepared me in building relationships with near peers and allowing them to trust me enough to be led by me. I think leveraging my strengths has allowed me to stay true to myself and lead authentically in a way that’s unique to me and who I am.


All in all, I thought it was pretty bizarre that the answers were so easy to answer. It was as if I wrote down exactly what I knew I would get from a year as a Team Leader. With that being said, excuse me, I’m going to write down the next five things I need next…

Retracing my Life Map

At a recent Learning and Development day at the Starbucks Headquarters in Seattle, I was pleasantly surprised by the insight I gathered on my own life.

What I’ve recently learned about myself is that I’ve always been the person who never really knew what was next in life for me. In talking about what was next, most times it’s always been: “I’m working on figuring it out.” I’ve never had specific long-term goals. Every thing has sort of fit the expression: we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. In high school, I didn’t have a dream college. I didn’t have a dream career and I still don’t. I went into my Freshman year as “undecided” or as “undeclared” as I preferred to call it.

Retracing my life map, I zoomed in on different pieces of what has made me who I am – who I was as a grade school student, who I was as a college student, who I am because of my family, and who I am right now.

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I used these notes to talk about life story to strangers to professionals at Starbucks and it was nice to be able to write it down, see, and hear how my story is unique and different from others.
  • Grade School Student: I found the theme of knowledge. I was always curious about things that I didn’t know about or had never tried. Joining clubs and sports that challenged my intellect, leadership, and various skills.
  • College Student: I found the theme of service and leadership. I joined communities and took on roles that were focused on empowering others through relationship-building, leadership, and meeting others where they are at.
  • Family: I found the theme of creating a path of my own. As the oldest of seven siblings, a first generation American and college student, and daughter of parents who didn’t complete High School, I internally told myself that I had the power to determine where my path can go.
  • Present: I’ve been focusing on values that I have been letting guide me, professionally and personally: self-awareness, growth, and goal-setting.

So the million dollar question is: what’s next after City Year?”

What I can say is that in thinking about the path that I’ve created and what’s next, I’m finding that I want to take my love and values for these themes in my life to help empower others to be their best selves and to use their path to strengthen their values and lead them to where they feel purpose and joy. I want to use my skills in creative storytelling and communication to share the work and experiences of communities and individuals.

Where this will lead me, I’m not sure, but as usual, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Back to Where it Began

Last night, I went back to the elementary school I served in last year for their Math Night. Walking through the front doors always takes me back to when I would get off the bus and relax on the chair in the lobby for a few minutes before our 7:30am circle. This time, I was greeted by their current City Year team. I walked happily down the stairs to the cafeteria and immediately saw a student from last year who told his City Year to tell me to come to Math Night so he could see me. He was being lectured by his mom and a teacher as I walked up toward them and that was humorous to me. I quickly decided to not interrupt their conversation and then heard a chiming of “MS. NHOELL!!!” Three of my students from last year ran up for hugs. It was so nice seeing familiar faces and getting free pizza 🙂 I was so busy looking for students and being approached by students and staff. It was so crazy to think that this was the community I was a part of before the one that I’m currently in. My cup was being filled with so much joy! Before I knew it, I was reminded that I was a volunteer and that I had to go to my station for the night.

Math is definitely not my biggest strength, but luckily I knew how to measure the diameter of a cookie! Students had to pick a cookie and measure its diameter with a mini ruler. Once they had their measurement, I’d give them a sticker and say, “You measured the diameter of your Oreo! NOW you can eat it!”

It was great seeing so many students and their families excited about math together. So many students swarmed my table. You could say it was because I had free cookies, but I’d like to think it was because good ol’ Ms. Nhoell was back.

Leading Leaders

Around this time last year, I applied to be a Team Leader for City Year Seattle/King County. I remember thinking about how much I had grown in just 8 months of service already and how I could grow even more staying with the organization and working with others who already knew my strengths and also areas of growth. I also knew that I wasn’t sure what was next for my career path and that I wanted to stay in Seattle. I applied and thought I knew what the Team Leader role entailed.

It’s now 9 months into my service year as a Team Leader and I can say that it hasn’t been what I expected because I really didn’t know what to expect. I’m in a different school, working with a different team and a different Program Manager. My Team Leader role also looks different from the other Team Leaders at other schools. This year, I’ve grown as a leader and coach and it’s been challenging.

With that being said, Corps Members currently in their first year are starting to think about applying for the Team Leader position. In January, the position is publicized and people start talking about their interest in applying. Staff even host two open house events where they inform Corps Members more about the role and what it entails. I attended two of those last year and found them more beneficial hearing from the Team Leaders I knew and not just the staff. I found that the few present Team Leaders were more open and honest in how they spoke about their varying roles. I wanted Corps Members of this year to feel the same from our Team Leader team.

So I thought what if our TL team hosted our own event where we provided that open and honest conversation to the Corps Members interested in being a Team Leader? No staff. Just Team Leaders and Corps Members.

I pitched the idea to my Program Director with a simple text: What do you think about an Open House hosted just by the TLs? Just an idea!

She replied with: I love it! Keep me updated with the details you work out.

And the rest was truly history because it had never been done before at our site.

I pitched it to our Team Leader team and all 9 of them were on board. Because everyone was enthusiastic about the project, it wasn’t hard getting support in planning the different components of the event.

Long story, short: The event came together so easily! It was at my house with food and all 10 Team Leaders were present, which I thought was important! It was well-structured and thought out. The Team Leaders felt great about it and the Corps Members all left with smiles! I kept getting ‘thank you’s and ‘great job’s at the end of the night! With our saved planning, this is now an event that can be done for years to come with other Team Leader teams. With all of this, I felt successful in not only the event, but my leadership.

Through the planning process, I felt reflective, innovative, and collaborative. Being fueled by my own enthusiasm and passion for the event, I think I was able to have the same carry on to my fellow Team Leaders and even the Corps Members. The number one thing I made sure to share with the prospective TLs was that your role is truly what you make of it and I used the event, itself, as an example. I took an idea and made it come alive with some thoughtfulness, dedication, and work. From this, I am definitely valuing this experience as a leader.

Who can brighten your day?

As I mentioned previously, City Year is a unique experience. It’s challenging and rewarding. At times, it’s easy to think that it’s just challenging. When I need to be reminded that it’s also rewarding, I know that I can count on others who are going through this unique City Year experience as well. Particularly a Team Leader and particularly a good friend of mine – Deanna.

Taking a moment from power greeting to take a little selfie together on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

When I first met Deanna back in August of 2015 and found out she was also from North Carolina, I was excited to have that connection, being that I moved across the country not knowing anyone. It was even cooler finding out that our hometowns were just 25 minutes apart from each other. As Corps Members were assigned their school teams, oddly enough, the two of us were assigned to the same school team and were both assigned to work with the third grade team in English Language Arts. Out of the 84 other Corps Members, it was about as close as two people could work together in City Year. Same City Year site, school team, grade level, and down to the same subject to tutor. With this, we were given opportunities to collaborate, considering that our work was similarly aligned.

As the year progressed, I learned more about Deanna. I learned about what she was interested in, how she spent her time outside of work, and who she was a person through quality time and collaboration. We ran our after-school group together. We were responsible for a program, catering to our 10 third graders, with high quality and effectiveness. We did this by making sure they understood not just the ELA lesson, but also some social and emotional skills along the way. It went without saying that we had high expectations for ourselves and our students and working together was not only easy, but enjoyable.

Deanna and I both serve as Team Leaders this year and I still find it easy and enjoyable to collaborate with her. We may not be on the same school team, working with the same students, but I love that we both make time to self-care with each other by spending quality time with together. I’ve always admired her patience, integrity, empathy, and ability to provide perspective. There have been countless times where she makes me think about another way to think about a situation with care and authenticity. Not many people have this ability and I consider myself lucky to call someone like Deanna a close friend. She helps me be my best self and I really can’t thank her enough for just simply being her. So when time’s get a little challenging, you bet I can count on Ms. Deanna to brighten up my day with her light. Who can brighten your day with their light? Let them know.

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Deanna, I’m so grateful that City Year has brought the two of us together because knowing that I have a lifelong friend is pretty freaking cool. Thank you for being you.

February Reflection

This month’s reflection is largely themed on City Year’s PITW # 158:

“It’s a privilege for all of us to serve at City Year.”

Last week, my gratitude for the work we do and the opportunities that are available for us to take advantage of was renewed. I mean it’s pretty awesome to have such a unique role in a school and in education – someone who isn’t a teacher, but can still have the opportunities to teach planned lessons to students. Someone who doesn’t have to discipline students, but can still hold them to high expectations. We can also develop relationships in a way that other school “adults” cannot. The red jacket distinguishes us, physically, but it also means that our role is different. Sometimes the role isn’t all too clear, but I can say that I’m grateful to be able to work in a school every day and have students ask questions and express themselves to me in ways that they might not be able to do with other adults. The near-peer relationship truly makes a difference.

The opportunities are certainly what you make of it at City Year. Professionally, I have developed by just working on and with a diverse team. A team that is made up of different backgrounds, experiences, and varying styles of learning and communication. Being able go through the process of navigating and understanding the unique individuals I work with has been so rewarding and worthwhile. Individualizing and adapting has made me more aware of others and myself. I’ve gained and developed skills that I once thought I was proficient at, but realized I wasn’t until I found myself working with others who were completely different than myself. Intellectually, my mind has explored different ideas and perspectives. Ideas and perspectives of other people who come with rich knowledge on various passions. With this, most times I just choose to just stop, listen, and admire what others have to share. I may not completely understand, but when I hear others speak so passionately, it’s special. I’ve also become more reflective in my service about myself in different contexts. I’ve thought about who I am when I’m at work, when I’m at home. Who I am as a friend, a leader, a daughter, a sister. Who I am as an Asian female who is a first-generation college student and has moved so far away from her family. I’ve learned that things can be complicated, but I’m also learning what things I should simplify and what things I should really think more into.

As I’m approaching my 18 months of service with City Year, I can 100% say that it’s tested me in all kinds of ways. It’s challenged my emotions, my resilience, my confidence, and many other vital components of my being. I can also 100% say that I don’t regret my decision in choosing to commit a year of service and also a second year of service. This unique experience has offered me so much and luckily I’ve taken learning opportunities to grow and persevere. I don’t think I could have gained what I have from anything other than City Year, considering what point I’m at in life. It truly is a privilege to serve at City Year.

Changing the world, one pun at a time.

Recess is a time where I can be as silly as possible with students. The added physical activity is a bonus too. One of my team members joked that by the end of the year, I would become “a jock” because I’ve been getting into any game I can with students. Soccer, four-square, football, tag, jump rope…you name it!

Today, I decided to approach the cool guys of 3rd grade and one 2nd grader in their 2 on 2 game of basketball. I confidently announced, “Alright! Ms. Cara and I are in!” I can do that on rare occasions when I’m taller than the students. We shocked them at first because we interrupted their game, but I think they were more excited to defeat us. So they thought. Unsurprisingly, they put the 2nd grade boy with the two City Years.

If I’m playing any game with the “cool kids,” I make sure to act as crazy and goofy as possible. That’s just what I did, incorporating some exaggerated movements in my defense and offense. There was also some dabbing. “COME ON, LEBRON! WHATCHA GOT?!” was repeatedly asked as I was embarrassingly defending one student that insisted “Lebron” over his real name. It really was all fun and games as it was a close competition!

Recently, I’ve also gotten into embodying the role of a commentator, even when I’m playing in the game. Willie, one of boys on the opposing team, had possession of the ball and as he was about to shoot, I asked, “Will he make it?!” Because my brain functions through puns and play on words most times, I then shouted, “WILLIE, MAKE IT!” Instantly, a burst of laughter was released…from just me.

From then on, each time Willie had possession of the ball and went for a shot, you bet I repeated my newfound line of brilliance. One of his teammates, out of nowhere, gleefully said to me, “HA! I get it!” My eyes lit up. “YOU DO?! ISN’T IT FUNNY?!” He laughed and said, “yeah.”

Right then, the bell to end recess rang.

“I don’t get it,” admitted Willie. As I was explaining to Ms. Cara about how proud I was that the 3rd grader got my pun, I glanced over to see him with his arm over Willie’s shoulder as they were walking, explaining the pun to him. “Will he make it? WILL, get it?! Willie. Will he…”

It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

Ms. Cara: “Changing the world…”

Me: “One pun at a time.”

On Time and Here Every day!

It’s Tuesday and at our school that means that it’s “No Tardy Tuesday!”

Attendance is a focus that is important to the school and also City Year because we know that when students are at school, that’s when they have the opportunity to learn. When they’re not at school, they’re missing out on learning.

Every Tuesday, at 7:55am, our Attendance Coordinator goes on the intercom and congratulates everyone that is in their classroom on time. He then plays a song that has been requested by a student and for about a minute, the song is played for students to freely dance and get their energy out, all in celebration of being on time to class.

This morning, the song was requested by a student who LOVES John Cena. I’m talking about LOVES him so much that his nickname is John Cena and he embodies John Cena’s personality with his super serious face and overall demeanor. With all that said, the song he requested was John Cena’s theme song (the infamous song he walks out to before he starts his wrestling match). When I heard the song he requested, I cracked up because I was imagining the student’s reaction to the song playing and how serious he would take it! Don’t know what the song sounds like? Click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LitDGyxFh4

This gave me lots of joy this morning and made me realize what great effort is going into our attendance work at our school. Even when students are late, we take the time to write each student a pass to class and ask them what color they’re feeling on the mood meter. After they’ve identified their emotion, they’re sent to class with their teacher now knowing how to adjust their communication and teaching based on how that particular student is feeling.

I’d say our goal is not to have every single student with perfect attendance, but for every single student to feel like their presence is valued and that their voices are being heard when they are at school.