Finding Purpose In My Roots

University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania. Source: Penn Today

Two days after my mom died, during my first semester of college, I texted a friend that I still believed in love. After years of budgeting food stamps, traveling an hour by public transport for $7.75 an hour, and watching my dad take his final breaths just nine months prior, she was finally at peace. During those initial months, I told myself repeatedly that all their hard work would not be wasted if I just lived.

I returned to campus the day after my mom’s funeral determined to make the most of my Ivy League education. All around me, students were talking about things like future careers in consulting and the latest fraternity date night. I remember feeling confused, constantly questioning how I was meant to root my purpose in life in a place like my university and then feeling ashamed for even having those thoughts in the first place. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, the very opportunity that my parents had sacrificed so much for and even died early deaths for.

In the midst of my confusion, fighting suicidal thoughts, and attempting to survive, I stumbled off my ivory tower campus and into the Henry C. Lea School, a K-8 school in West Philadelphia that reminded me of home. Every Wednesday, I taught choir in a classroom with windows guarded by bars. During our end of the year recital, a student texted her mom nine times from my phone before receiving a response. “I can’t come today.” When she cried into my shoulder, I felt her pain. I wanted my parents, too.

University of Oxford
University of Oxford. Source: Getty Creative

My students reminded me of my parents. Decades ago, they roamed the same Philadelphia streets. Before worry etched wrinkles into their brown faces, they were full of hope just like my students with dreams of becoming nurses, lawyers, NBA players, and musicians. Despite their persistent hope, a constant fear of my students meeting the same fate as my parents ate at my mind. I did not want them to die before owning a home, having a career, or taking just a day off.

The anxiety about my students continued so I began to look for solutions. I thought about my parents’ unwavering support and my one student’s tears. Many educators focus on the school itself but I worry about what my students face at home. During the summer of 2016, I conducted independent research on Family and Community Engagement (FACE). I outlined theory on class-based parenting methods, summarized community school practices, and interviewed staff. All of my work resulted in a 75-page paper on Lea’s path to providing wrap-around support by servicing students and their families.

When I started as the Assistant FACE Coordinator, family engagement was a few families attending parent-teacher association meetings and workshops. I worked with staff to revitalize marketing strategies and to conduct an annual family survey to better understand needs. Eventually, we began holding workshops regularly, supported a school-based parenting class, and created events that drew crowds of 400. I even started co-instructing a monthly family cooking class. Most recently, we won a grant from the school district, so teachers can teach families the material that their students are learning.

Despite our success, I sometimes feel like I am fighting a hopeless fight. FACE is hard when parents constantly work overtime, do not speak English, and face other barriers. Sometimes I wonder if we are doing enough. But I refuse to give up. I smile when students who face food insecurities sneak into a cabinet that I have stocked with snacks bought by my food stamps. Recently, a mom and I bubbled with excitement as I interviewed her for my two theses on FACE. I cried when a parent told me the school was finally listening to her. I fight every day for those moments and for them. I fight every day for my community and for my parents’ legacy. I fight every day for my life.

In my work, in the Lea community, and in Philadelphia, I have found a purpose. The most valuable time of my college career has been spent making an impact in local communities and connecting with people that I genuinely care for. Every first-generation, low-income student’s path to finding something fulfilling may not be filled with community engagement and education work like it was for me. Your passion may be business and making money in order to provide for your family. The thing that ignites a spark in your eye and heart may be the arts or engineering. It may not be just one thing. It may be many things. Whatever it is, find it, love it wholeheartedly, and enjoy it. My parents didn’t spend their lives pouring all of their love into me for me not to follow my dreams and to not do something that I genuinely love, no matter if it fits the status quo of my university or not. I understand that now.

Anea Moore Headshot

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Anea Moore recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in Sociology and Urban Studies, Magnum Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa. Since her freshman year, Anea has volunteered at Henry C. Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia where she taught choir and served as the assistant family engagement coordinator. During her time at Penn, Anea co-chaired the annual 1vyG Conference in 2018, served on the board of Penn First, and served as Chair of the student board of one of Penn’s largest community service centers. For her service and advocacy, she was awarded the prestigious 2018 Truman Scholarship and 2019 Rhodes Scholarship. As a Rhodes Scholar, Anea will pursue a MSc in Comparative Social Policy at the University of Oxford beginning in Fall 2019 where she will focus her research and community work on poverty alleviation for low-income, black families. Prior to moving to Oxford this fall, Anea is currently interning at the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans.