As students, we're so pressured to live up to the perfect checklist of good grades, good test scores, a good college and then a good job. But we all know that it is far more complicated than that. Even when you do your best to live up to the high standards set by the education system, it's easy to feel like a failure when the outcomes aren't what you expect. But this supposed failure can actually launch you into your own success story; just ask nineteen-year-old Eliza Brewer.

Eliza Brewer had a pretty typical high school career—taking AP classes, participating in the band and even being an officer in some school organizations. Being from a low-income, single-parent family, Brewer did whatever she could to stand out to colleges. Everything looked great on paper. But when it came down to choosing a school to attend for the fall of 2017, all her options were completely unaffordable. So she made a hard decision about her future---taking a gap year.

"When pondering my next steps, I was directed by counselors towards community college, a gap year and certification programs. This was a difficult time for me, I felt as if all of my hard work hadn't and possibly never would pay off. I didn't know which choice was the right one and I was terrified of taking a misstep and ruining the possibility of a fruitful career," Brewer said. It was completely uncharted territory, but she decided to take the plunge. She applied to two programs in AmeriCorps, (a government-funded national public service program) National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and City Year Chicago. After being accepted to both NCCC and City Year Chicago, Brewer chose to spend her gap year working with the latter. "City Year offered me a bit more of my wants: the ability to live in Chicago, free transportation and the freedom to live independently of the organization."

Eliza Brewer

Brewer's official role at City Year Chicago was a student success coach for fifth-grade students at a school in the North Lawndale neighborhood. Her responsibilities, however, went far beyond that: she worked in small, targeted groups for math tutoring, held social-emotional sessions to develop student behavioral growth, coached chronic absentees on bringing up their attendance and organized events to drive community engagement. She also took up the role of after-school coordinator, which involved the planning and running of City Year Chicago's after-school homework help and enrichment programs. Brewer was always striving to not only improve herself but also the group as a whole, and she volunteered to lead training sessions as well as receive after-hours training. This all ran a grand total of 1,718 service hours.

Eliza Brewer

But during the City Year graduation ceremony on June 15, Brewer heard her name called for not one, but two prestigious awards; she described it as a complete shock, especially being only one of five 18-year-olds in the 230 member program. "I had felt very underutilized in the high school space, but this was a complete 180. I felt acknowledged and supported." The first was City Year Chicago's Member of the Year, an award she received for "engaging others in City Year’s mission and vision, for leading with humility and seeking the greater good, for commitment to advancing the cause of national service, and for dedicated and exemplary service as an AmeriCorps member." The second was one of City Year's highest national honors, the Eli J. Segal Bridge Builder award. This was awarded for making connections to begin discussions of a partnership between City Year and Questbridge, a national organization devoted to creating pathways for low-income students to attend elite schools all around the country. Brewer was a part of Questbridge during her junior and senior years of high school and will be a Questbridge Scholar at Amherst College in the fall.

City Year

Moving forward, Eliza Brewer is optimistic about what the future holds for her. Just one year ago she was set on a path with no certain outcome, and now she will be attending an elite liberal arts college and her self-proclaimed "dream school." But even though the future looks bright, Brewer always acknowledges the times where it wasn't so clear. If this is something you relate to, she has one piece of advice:

"There’s no such thing as failure, only opportunity. I thought I had failed my senior year but through that difficulty, I was able to experience one of the most profoundly transformative years of my life. Never stop moving forward and never stop advocating for yourself."


Lead Image Credit: Eliza Brewer