It’s hard to pack up your life in two suitcases and move to a new country when you’re 15. But that’s what happened when my family moved to Nashville from Peru the second semester of my junior year of high school.
I spoke some English…enough to get by in classes, but not enough to handle the everyday teenage lingo. I had a really hard time socially because of it. Back home I was known for being friendly, active and always smiling. Here I was the new girl who didn’t know anybody. It was really hard…I kept to myself and focused on my grades, but I felt a little depressed because I felt like I didn’t belong here.
I remember the first time Oasis’ Tara Johnson came and spoke to my ELL class at Glencliff. At that point I didn’t want to do anything, so I didn’t join the Oasis program. But Tara came back four more times, and I finally said okay just because I was tired of dealing with her.
It turned out to be the best decision of my life.
ITOP (International Teen Outreach Program) is a program designed to help international teenagers adapt into their school and become engaged in their community.
The first thing for me was just having a sense of belonging. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone…that there were other classmates going through the same thing.
ITOP helped me see the links between cultures. It helped me realize that we’re all people and we all have struggles. We learned about American culture and the challenges facing Nashvillians, and then we went out and did something about it through service learning. Over the next few months I started to feel a sense of connection and accomplishment from helping others.
Before long, my smile came back. I went from not talking to anyone to being the social, outgoing and active girl I had been all my life.
Oasis brought back the old Vanessa.
My senior year I won the Glencliff Community Service award for logging over 100 hours of service. I graduated and went to Lipscomb University, where I continued to stay connected to Oasis through a program called PULSE.
A few years after college, I got a call from Oasis. They offered me my dream job.
I’m an ITOP coordinator at Cameron Middle School. Helping kids who feel like I felt, scared and afraid of the new world they live in. It’s the best job in the world.
New international students are really vulnerable when they move here. They want to fit in so badly that they’re easy targets for bullies and gangs. I give them tools to deal with bullies and we practice how to handle peer pressure in safe ways. Our service learning component helps them feel valued for doing something positive. It shows them that they’re a valuable part of the community and gives them a positive alternative to joining a gang, which oftentimes is the only way a new kid feels like they can fit in.
Every day I get to help young people find their voice and make positive changes in their lives. It’s hard work, but I love it. I couldn’t dream of doing anything else.
In 2010 Vanessa was awarded Oasis’ highest honor, the Roy Hutton Vision in Action Award. The following is an excerpt from the award presentation:
There is nothing as powerful as someone who youth not only can identify with, but who simultaneously opens doors of opportunity and gives them the extra dosage of encouragement they need to believe they can actually walk through it. That describes Vanessa’s every action and every interaction with the 150+ international students that Vanessa has supported this year.
Ms V is the embodiment of the encourager that we all knew at some point in our lives and who probably made us feel worthwhile when we were teenagers. First she wins their hearts and trust, and then she loads them with opportunity after opportunity, that ranges all manner of interests and abilities. She drives a full van 2 times a week and lots of weekends. She talks to parents, she texts the youth, she transports them to places and experiences beyond their circumstances, and through it all she brings her own story of immigration and joining ITOP at Glencliff High School.
Vanessa’s dedication bleeds into her weekends, vacations, and social life. But as one nomination from her friends at Great Outdoors University put it, a smile never left her face through it all…and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Through it all, Vanessa pushed her students just as she was pushed, showing them just how incredible they are while also helping them avoid risky behavior on their fragile journey towards adulthood. As that positive adult, she is creating citizens that actively contribute to their communities. But Vanessa helps them understand that when they are doing that work, they are not just volunteers…they are ambassadors – every life they touch changes. They are there to challenge and overcome stereotypes, and they are there to increase awareness of just how intimately connected all human beings truly are.
Tonight, we are so grateful for the strength you have given to Oasis Center this year…strength that comes from unity across groups, across ages, across programs, and across differences.