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My Mondays begin at 7:50 a.m. with a frantic scramble to get dressed and grab coffee before catching the morning carpool. My classes don’t start until noon, but there’s a class full of Pre-K students anxiously awaiting my arrival by 8:45. Waking up that early is a constant struggle, but as soon as I walk in the door of my students’ classroom, I’m reminded as to why I make the sacrifice.

“Good morning, Mr. Ruben! Good morning, Jumpstart!” shouts a chorus of ecstatic young children, filled with uninhibited enthusiasm, unbridled ambition and untapped potential.

Jumpstart, an AmeriCorps-affiliated organization, works toward the day every child in America enters kindergarten prepared to succeed. The program, which joined the Emory campus in 2008, trains and supports college students to serve as Corps Members, who serve 10 -15 hours a week in one local preschool classroom for an entire school year.

As Jumpstart Corps Members, we cultivate a profound relationship with our students as both educators and role models. Make no mistake, this is not your conventional weekly service trip. Each session presents new, more daunting challenges, but we are trained to strive, overcome and persist against all odds. At the end of the day, Jumpstart is more than books, games and bright red shirts. It is an opportunity to alter the course of a child’s life; to work towards the day every child in America enters kindergarten prepared to succeed.

When I reminisce on fuzzy memories of my childhood, I remember a teacher who pinched my cheeks and called me mijito. I remember making a papier-mâché piñata for my birthday. I remember expressing a rebellious audacity towards authority. Needless to say, I was more than a handful, but despite my behavioral challenges, I was given the instruction necessary to pursue a journey of lifelong academic success.

As a first generation Mexican-American citizen born into a family of low socioeconomic status, I was destined from the start to be a statistical failure. Learning English as a second language was one thing, but having to navigate an education system that is ill-suited to meet the needs of children from disadvantaged backgrounds was the reality I faced from day one.

Here is the truth about our American education system: it is fundamentally incapable of ensuring that all of our children are given an equal opportunity to attain academic success. Factors such as where you live and how you make a living are used as discriminatory means of determining access to quality education, and for the millions of families who fall short of sufficient social and financial capital, the system fails them. Their children are the victims of cumulative academic regression as their yearly test scores and chances of graduating high school and going to college plummet. They are the involuntary proponents of the achievement gap, a testament to educational inequality in our country.

So what happens to these children? Unfortunately, their futures are predictably tragic. High school dropouts often face a lifetime of dead-end jobs or prison time, depending on their desperation. The uneducated are given few options to sustain an adequate living, let alone opportunities to succeed beyond a meager existence. As new life is brought to bear this struggle, the cycle of educational oppression is perpetuated and the gap grows larger.

Before joining Jumpstart at Emory, I was oblivious to the realities of educational inequality, let alone how fortunate I was to have overcome such adversity and make it to college. All throughout my public education, I knew my family was socioeconomically disadvantaged, but I never felt restrained from academic achievement. In fact, education was the only aspect of my life from which I drew a sense of agency and empowerment. It’s no coincidence that I loved my teachers growing up. They were an unwavering source of inspiration, guidance and reassurance during the formative years of my youth. They taught me how to harness potential and never settle for anything less than my dreams.

My Jumpstart experience has taught me that we don’t have to wait for radical education reform to save our underprivileged children from a grim statistical fate. To alter the course of a child on a precarious journey through the education system, all it takes is a healthy disregard for the impossible, an emphatic desire to make a difference and a firm belief that every child in America deserves a chance to attain academic success. Jumpstart is more than just another campus extracurricular; it is a revolution. Joining the corps was a pivotal decision for me, one that set in motion my plans to continue working in education through Teach For America upon graduating from Emory.

Jumpstart is nothing without the extraordinary dedication of students willing to make a profound impact in the lives of children. The bright red shirt is like a cape; in the eyes of a child, you are a superhero. Jumpstart is a call for heros.

– By Ruben Diaz 

Photo by Olivia Wise