In Part one You heard Jessa's story. Now, her teacher's Version. I'm proud to introduce my friend, 2017 Northern Mariana Is. Teacher of the Year.
Mr. G, Take it away.
“Could this dead-end coral road lead somewhere?” I asked myself on August 4th, 2015. Dusk was settling in over a recently destroyed island and I was driving water jugs up, up, and higher up, into the hills of Saipan.
Two days previous, Saipan was devastated by Typhoon Soudelor. Saipan is the heart of typhoon alley, where nature eats tin; Jessa lived in tin. My home is concrete because I am rich - I’m a teacher. In Saipan a bachelor’s degree buys you a concrete house, bold in the face of a typhoon and resolute in a debris field.
But Jessa’s house, at the dead-end of that coral rock road, was a barracks with 17 people living in plywood and tin. This type of home is temporary shelter for guest workers on Saipan, workers like Jessa’s parents who have been temporarily living there for all of Jessa’s life.
Jessa is dainty, clever, and dances to music nobody else can hear. She was my student at our small island high school. She was one of the founding members of our Million Dollar Scholars Club, designed to support young scholars as they leave the island and go to college.
Just two weeks before Jessa’s senior year, Soudelor took her school clothes and threw them into the jungle along with the rest of her house. Jessa was inside as her home was destroyed, she was nearly killed. A few days later, sitting under a bent piece of tin at dusk, I found Jessa in her typhoon demolished house, and she was thirsty.
After I left water and food to help her family through the next days, Jessa’s mother asked how she could repay me for my help. I told Jessa’s mom that if she wanted to repay me, all she had to do was let Jessa study with me in her senior year: let me help her go to college off-island. Her mother looked toward my silhouette, dark against her homelessness, and she said, “No. Jessa cannot leave Saipan for college. We have no home, no money, and no way of helping her. We could never do it.”
I asked Jessa’s mom to please consider saying “maybe” instead of “no”. I told her that I would send her to college, I promised her, and that it would cost them nothing. It was a hollow promise, I had no idea how I would follow through with it, but Jessa’s mom said, “OK, maybe” and that was enough.
Over the next year Jessa’s parents re-built a home around her as she studied and wrote scholarship essays like the one you likely just read. Jessa went months without electricity or running water as she studied for advanced placement exams and applied to universities. One day a letter came from Central Washington University: an offer of a 4-year full-ride scholarship. We paid for Jessa’s flight with donations and Jessa moved into her first strong home: a college dorm.
For each of my students to leave Saipan, it costs $1500. The price of the flight, passport, application fees, dorm room deposits, and more, must all be paid before a Pell Grant is awarded or a scholarship is given. This $1500, in many cases, accounts for two months of wages for our families who are surviving poverty in the farthest away arm of the United States of America.
Nearly all of my students come from poverty, many families do not even have a bank account, but each of them can have access to higher education because we prepare them, raise the money for flights, and send them to colleges where scholarships await. My 23 scholars, from the most disadvantaged high school in the region, claimed more than 2.5 million dollars in scholarships last year. But beyond the numbers, Jessa will never again live in a home of tin and plywood. Her dead-end coral road led somewhere, it led to college.
In recognition of my work with Jessa and her peers, I was honored as the 2017 Teacher of the Year for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. When I travelled to the continental U.S. for a conference in February, I met Washington State Teacher of the Year, Camille Jones. I told Camille about Jessa, and Camille immediately said she wanted to help. A mere couple of weeks later, Camille was buying Jessa dinner, lending encouragement and mentorship to an island girl very far from home.
Now in year two, our work continues. With 26 more scholars preparing to leave Saipan for college this August, I am once again raising funds. Because if Jessa can escape poverty and pursue a college education, so can Kloe, Andrea, Cory, Jose, Brittany, Erica, Shania, Tiyani, and the rest. This is the work that we teachers do, the best job in the world.
To join the cause of the Million Dollar Scholars please visit:
Gerard Van Gils teaches College Preparation at Kagman High School where he created the Million Dollar Scholars Program. He lives on the island of Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands) with his wife and two daughters. He doesn’t own socks.