What Inspires Us?
There are many reasons why our academic mentors feel the urge to volunteer with Boston Partners in Education. Sometimes, it is the BPS students alone that provide the inspiration. Often, academic mentors are looking for a way to give back to the community. Gerard Kasemba, once a student served by a Boston Partners academic mentor, is starting an ambitious campaign driven largely by both motivators.
Gerard grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he developed an early interest in technology. When he was six years old, he discovered an abandoned keyboard and carried it with him everywhere, imagining it to be his personal laptop. As he grew up, he would take apart things in his house to find out how they worked. He experimented with everything from an electric toy car to a television remote, and eventually the television itself. While he appreciated the education he received from his local schools, he was not able to get access to a lot of the resources that could have helped him learn more. However, Gerard experienced an abrupt shift in his self-taught adventures when he and his family were forced to flee to the United States as political refugees.
They settled in Boston, and while they were safer here, Gerard found the challenge of living in a vastly different culture to be daunting. “The first year living in the US was very hard. The first two years were hard, because it’s like being a new baby, pretty much. You need to learn everything from the start. The hardest challenges were not being able to express myself, being able to talk with people, and just trying to start a conversation.” But the new environment also provided him with new opportunities. Now with access to resources, Gerard began to teach himself programming. He also found that his new high school, the Boston International High School, was incredibly supportive at allowing him the time to catch up with his peers.
One of the resources they were able to provide him with was a Boston Partners academic mentor named Nicole Davis. Nicole met with Gerard and another student, Jose, every Saturday morning to give them the extra attention and help they both needed to pass their MCAS exams. “To tell you the truth about our first meeting, I was kind of tired. I said I don’t want to go to school today. But my brother said, ‘Let’s go. We got nothing to lose.’ So when I got there, I actually liked it. [Nicole], she is a happy person. I wasn’t a big fan of math, but with her we learned the math and some English too. I really loved it.”
Nicole provided reading lessons to the students. She encouraged them to write summaries of the readings, making sure they wrote down words or concepts that they didn’t understand so she could explain in detail when they were ready. During an event celebrating the achievement of her students, Nicole said, “They worked so incredibly hard, and every week I saw them grow. Jose, I saw her confidence increase so much. And then for Gerard, his confidence and his academics were so strong. And he’s really willing to take risks, and I know that will pay off for him in the future. Both of them put so much time in preparation for their studies, and I am just so grateful to have been a part of their success.”
As Nicole implied, Gerard passed his MCAS easily, thanks in part to her help and the support of his high school. Since then, Gerard has thought about the resources he received as a student in Boston with a mix of gratitude and ambition. “Just, from that day, seeing her teaching that way, I said, ‘I can do that one day. Be able to give back what I received.’”
Today, Gerard is in college at Bridgewater State University where he is following his passion by majoring in Computer Science. Recently, he has started raising funds for an ambitious goal to make good on his desire to give back. He hopes to build schools in his native country that will give students there the same opportunities he has now – namely, access to technology, computers and the internet. “I always grew up with the idea of starting something back in the Congo that could help a lot of kids. I know the potential these kids have since I was there before. And, when I was back home, I really wanted to learn stuff, but I didn’t have anybody to give me the opportunity to learn. When I came here and I saw the opportunities that we had to learn, I thought maybe if I do the same thing back home, and give those kids a chance to learn and have everything that they need to learn, I’m sure they can bring good into the society. That’s what inspires me to start something back in the Congo.”
What inspires us? Like many of our students, it’s often not “what” inspires us, so much as who.