When I started high school in the Bronx, I didn’t feel very good about myself. I moved to the United States from Ghana when I was four years old, and I was a precocious kid, excited to learn, attend school in America, and make new friends. But, perhaps because of my thick Ghanaian accent and pudginess on account of newfound access to McDonalds, I experienced a good deal of bullying from my classmates. It felt like the more I contributed in the classroom, the more I drew attention to myself and became a target. My interest in school waned.
I had moved from Ghana to New York City with my family, and school seemed easy and pointless.
I became one part class clown and one part dreamer, zoning out whatever anyone around me (including my teachers) were saying. I liked to sit at my desk and get lost in romance novels, and I earned a reputation as the talkative, funny girl who read a lot for pleasure but rarely listened or did her homework.
Then, during my sophomore year, I had an experience that changed me: My English teacher, Ms. Metrakos, gave me an 89 on a paper I’d written, noting that she felt I could have easily done better. When she gave me the opportunity to rewrite it for a higher grade, I was stumped. The underachiever in me was happy with the 89 and frustrated that she would even suggest I put in more work. But another part of me was grateful that she cared enough to realize I wasn’t reaching my potential – and to call me out on it. I ended up taking Ms. Metrakos up on her offer, earning a perfect score on the rewrite, along with a 94 for the semester and the highest score on the English section of the state exams that year out of all the students in the school.
The experience of rewriting that one paper made me realize that putting effort into my work wasn’t something to be ashamed of. There’s no chance this would have happened without someone urging me forward, and that’s a big part of why I founded The Fairy Godsister, a nonprofit devoted to mentoring bright, economically disadvantaged women ages 16-24. We aim to do what Ms. Metrakos did for me: Empower people to develop and use their unique voices.
So how did I go from an under-performing class clown to a Master’s student launching a nonprofit at age 26? My path wasn’t linear. After graduating from college in 2010, I worked in the private sector as a publicist and project manager. But after experiencing a few different office environments, I realized that I didn’t have any mentors in the workplace to confide in and turn to for advice and guidance. I felt restless and dissatisfied, and that’s when I decided I needed to find a profession that revolved around preventing others from feeling that same way.
Like the young women I work with through The Fairy Godsister, I too had struggled to realize my own potential. I was afraid. I didn’t feel I had the resources to be extraordinary and chasing greatness looked like it was an exhausting amount of work. But no matter how much I tried to hide, Ms. Metrakos and every mentor of mine thereafter constantly encouraged me to work hard and to embrace standing out. Now my team and I want to be that voice for other young women and girls.
On a group outing with some of the young women I mentor some time ago, I watched a particularly shy girl get asked a simple question about some of the challenges she was dealing with. She perked up and blossomed as she answered the question. Later in the day, she walked up to me and said something that left me speechless.
“I can’t believe I’m actually talking!” she said.
Hearing her innocent words, I knew I was exactly where I’m meant to be.
Leadership, entrepreneurship, commitment, and inspiration … As a kid, these weren’t words that I’d have ever considered part of my self-referential vocabulary. But today, I dare to be a positive influence, mentor, motivator, supporter, visionary, and someone who empowers young women to challenge themselves, pursue their passions, and find meaning in their work. Someone did that for me, and now it’s my turn.
This post is by Daniella Asantewaa and originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub. Image by Emily Malan Photography.