In 2021, I found myself in a place familiar to thousands of young people every year: I had just graduated from college and I had no idea what to do next.
I am the son of Vietnamese immigrants. Over the years I did everything “right”: I grew up east of Los Angeles and moved to San Diego to attend UCSD, majoring in human biology. I even graduated in three years instead of the usual four. Yet, by the time I graduated, my life looked completely different than it did when I started college in 2018.
After experiencing college during the COVID-19 pandemic, I just felt lost. My parents lost their business, and I went back home to help them get on their feet. I’d gone to one of the best schools in California, but now I was working three part-time jobs, feeling so far away from achieving my true purpose.
My purpose, I’ve learned, is to help others. So when a friend pointed me to a local AmeriCorps program, Promoting Achievement and Student Success, I applied right away.
PASS is part of the Student Success Coach Learning Network, a collaborative effort between eight community-based organizations operating in 26 cities across Northern, Central, and Southern California. It was just launched last year in response to the increased needs of students going back to school in a post-COVID world. The network places a particular emphasis on under-resourced communities, where learning loss and social-emotional challenges are disproportionately greater.
That September, I started as a student success coach, or SSC, at Mission Elementary School in Oceanside. My role as an SSC was to coach 34 students in need of specialized support, but I was available to any students who needed my help.
I found that, like me, these students were severely impacted by the pandemic. They were struggling to make up for learning loss while trying to heal from deep trauma, all while going through the normal challenges of adolescence. I saw so much of myself in them. I finally got a sense of what I was looking for all along: to have a deep impact on others.
I was working with a fifth grader, Jonathan, to help build his self-confidence. On the first day of the school’s annual camping trip — when many students are away from home for the first time — Jonathan was immediately overwhelmed. He whispered to me anxiously, asking when he could go home. Using my coaching, I taught him deep breathing exercises and gave him hand signals to help him express how he was feeling. Toward the end of the trip, I checked in on him.
“Jonathan?” I asked. “Is everything ok?”
He replied, “Yeah. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t leave me.”
That shifted my entire perspective, and it was something that I think every young person should consider as part of their career journeys. That’s the beauty of being a student success coach: as fellow young people, we are uniquely able to develop a trust with the kids we mentor, especially those who feel the most alone.
As back-to-school season kicks off, I urge anyone looking for direction to consider a year or more of service. The students need you, school communities need you, and it is a unique opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s life. As for me, my year with PASS and the Student Success Coach Learning Network helped me find my path. I am currently applying to medical school. It’s my way to serve fellow children of immigrants, like me.
We’ve made it through a global pandemic, economic upheaval, a challenging job market, and many of us are still trying to figure out who we want to be. Service-oriented programs like PASS and the Student Success Coach Learning Network can help guide you to your purpose.
To any recent grad who is questioning what’s next for them or how they can help, start by visiting ssclearningnetwork-ca.org.
Brian Nguyen is a former student success coach in PASS AmeriCorps, the Promoting Achievement and Student Success program.