The Power of the Former Student

Former students can help inspire current students and help them to understand what it takes to be successful. How? Read on!

I teach in a low-income, urban school, where close to 80% of the students receive free or reduced lunch, meaning they live at or below the poverty level. Many of my students face serious issues that can get in the way of their learning: violence, absentee parents, unemployment, housing and immigration problems. It is often hard for them to be hopeful about the future.

One way to help inspire teens and to instill hope for the future is for them to hear the stories of former students – those who have paved the way and who have overcome the obstacles that stood in the way of their success.

A few years ago, I wanted to increase the number of students taking my Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition class. STEM AP courses seemed to be drawing more students, and I heard one potential AP Lit student say “You only take AP Lit if you want to be an English teacher.” I knew I had to do something to re-brand my course, so I turned to my former Advanced Placement students for help. I kept in touch with many of them through Facebook, and I sent them emails asking them “Did AP Lit help you in college or in career, and if so, how?”

The responses I received were overwhelming. I heard from students who majored in chemical engineering, finance, business, law enforcement, accounting, pre-law, and pre-med. They now held positions as engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, financial analysts, police officers, and brand managers, and they worked for Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, and several owned their own businesses. I knew that hearing the stories of my former students would be powerful for my current students, so I printed them out and put them on a bulletin board outside my classroom. I have to say I was a little surprised when AP Lit enrollment doubled the next year.

Most importantly, my students’ stories gave messages of hope to my current students. Several of the students featured on the board were immigrants or refugees, who came from war-torn countries, and more than a few did not speak English when they arrived in the U.S. Many of the former students came from single family households. Many experienced poverty. Each post told of the power of education, perseverance, and hard work to lead the way to success.

I see my current students reading the posts by the former students all the time. I now invite my former students back to my classroom to speak to my current students and share their message of hope. Their example has proven inspirational and empowering. One former student who now works for the federal government pointed to the desk where he sat in my class eleven years ago. “I almost dropped out sophomore year,” he told my students. “I needed to work to support my family. School was an annoyance to me. But when I discovered I was good in track, I realized that if I got my grades up, I might be able to receive a scholarship. So I worked my butt off, and little by little, I realized my dream.”

Eddie was a student who did everything wrong in high school. He was a teacher’s nightmare: adversarial, argumentative, and mischievous. He barely graduated. I later learned that Eddie had so many family problems, it’s a wonder he made it to school at all. Even so, he became inspired during his senior year, and now he comes back to speak to my students to let them know that not being successful in high school is not the end of the world – that they still have time to right the sails.

Qais and his family fled Afghanistan when his father, an educator, was kidnapped and beaten by the Taliban. He needed to play catch up in school – to learn English so he could compete with his peers. Qais tells my students about the importance of self-advocacy, about finding out who the people are at school who can help – like teachers, guidance counselors, coaches.

Alumni stories are powerful, and we need to tap into them to help our students see the future. Learning what it takes to be successful through the words and examples of those that led the way can provide inspiration and encouragement for today’s students. When my students see a successful person who once sat in the same seat they are sitting in now, it provides a strong message of optimism and hope.

Related categories:
  • AnneJolly

    Powerful idea!

    This is a powerful idea, Nancy.  As a former 8th grade teacher, I can think back over several “alumni” who have a gripping message for the students in today’s classes.  Perhaps one message would be: Choose your high school courses carefully, and with a view to who and what you want to be in the future. That’s such a hard concept for a young teen, since their “vision” of their future may not reach beyond the weekend.  But if anyone can break through to them, I’d count on the alumni – the students who have lived and learned ahead of them.