Like most kids, I used to think a hero was someone with super powers, such as Batman or Captain America. As I grew older, I realized that heroes like Superman don’t exist. But I learned that there are other types of heroes in this world — ones who guide you, protect you, teach you and care about you.
Aubrie Tossmann — or, as I call her, Ms. Tossmann — works at my alma mater, Sullivan High School in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. She works for Umoja Student Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that partners with Sullivan to provide student support services in postsecondary readiness and restorative justice. Her job title is mentor/college counselor, but Ms. Tossmann represents far more than that to me: She is my hero.
Five years ago, my family arrived in the United States as immigrants from Nepal, where we lived as Tibetan refugees. I was foreign to the American language, culture, people, the schools and almost everything else. Starting out as an English as a Second Language (ESL) student, I had to work twice as hard as other students to master high school lessons while still improving my English skills. I wanted to compete with the best of the best.
After a year I enrolled in non-ESL classes and joined the school’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Medical Academy. As a CTE student, I was able to take honors and Advanced Placement classes to challenge myself even further. Sullivan’s Medical Program also allowed me to experience real-world work activities through internships at CVS Pharmacy and Lurie Children’s Hospital.
By my senior year, though, I still felt unprepared for college. There were thousands of unanswered questions in my mind: Would the colleges that I applied to accept me? Even if they did, how would I pay for such a school?
As I reflect back to that time, I’m overwhelmed by how much Ms. Tossmann did for me during my senior year. After I shared my goals and struggles with her, she took me under her wing. She guided me through a very tough year; I was a teenager who hoped to become the first in his family to attend college. She made sure I applied for several scholarships because there was no way I could pay for college without financial assistance. At one point, I spent every lunch period in her office, asking questions about college.
With Ms. Tossman’s support and mentorship, I accomplished something that once seemed impossible: I was accepted to Gustavus Adolphus College and received scholarships and a federal Pell Grant to pay for my education.
Months after my high school graduation, Ms. Tossmann learned about the White House’s “Beating the Odds” Summit and helped me to apply for it. I was accepted, and attended with nine other recent high school graduates from all over the country. At the summit I had amazing discussions with First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and other leaders.
Some might say that Ms. Tossmann just did what she was supposed to do as a mentor and college counselor at my school. But I truly believe she went above and beyond to make sure nothing stood in the way from my achieving my fullest potential.
Tenzin Choenyi is a second year student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peters, MN. He interned at the U.S. Department of Education’s Chicago office in Summer 2015.