December 4, 2017

How a lunchroom friendship helped launch a mentoring program for immigrant students

Virginia high school senior Ethan Tae founded the Student Ambassador Program in his school, and hopes to bring it to schools across the country

High School senior Ethan Tae founded Student Ambassador Program with help from the LearnServe International Incubator Program.

About a year and a half ago, being a changemaker in my community—and beyond—was a farfetched notion to me, too intimidating of a process to even think about. But today, I’m the founder of a social venture that has more than 100 student volunteers who are dedicated to helping immigrant students transition to the U.S. culturally, socially, and academically. I’ve been invited by the Fairfax County School Board to participate in their annual Student Advocacy and Innovation Workshop to speak about the prevalent integration issues many immigrant students face. It was a long journey, but every step of the way has revealed the power of social entrepreneurship and the potential that high schoolers like myself have to make a positive impact.

My journey started with my involvement in the immigrant community. Whether it was through church, nonprofit organizations, or even my school, immigrant transitioning has been a personal issue to me.

It was a friendship with a classmate that helped me turn my interest into action. It was in the school cafeteria where I met a recently arrived student from Nepal. I was disheartened to hear about his assimilation struggles to America. With each encounter, we shared more and more about each other, and I found myself becoming more than a friend–I was his support and a buddy mentor who helped him in his integration process. But the true beauty of our friendship was the cultural exchange–the ideas and life stories we shared–and I could see myself growing as a student, friend, and citizen. This friendship would be my charge to make a difference, to not only improve immigrant transitioning, but to also create a more receptive and culturally appreciative environment.

I knew something had to be done to help, but how? What was my first step? I had seen the problems, but I struggled with what I could do about it.

While my ideas marinated, my vision got a significant boost after being selected to join the LearnServe International Program, a social entrepreneurship incubator that exposed me to the world of NGOs and practical problem solving. It was there that I was able to discover the root of the problem I wanted to solve and how I could address it. With the encouragement of cohort leaders, mentors, and LearnServe fellows, my social venture began to slowly take shape. Intensive discussions, interviews, and specialized business exercises helped consolidate my ideas. Specifically, breaking down and analyzing the problems related to immigrant transitioning and creating customer profiles were helpful in the early stages of my venture. But perhaps the most important lesson that I learned was to never take no for an answer; the quality of resilience would prove to be a useful tool throughout my social venture journey.

Invigorated with direction and purpose, I took action within my own community and began to pitch and implement my solution: the Student Ambassador Program. By pairing incoming immigrant students with qualified ambassadors who serve as buddy mentors, the program would foster benefits for all stakeholders and contribute to a receptive and welcoming learning environment.

But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, even with my involvement in student government and past leadership experiences. Launching the program really tested my resolve. I remember being rejected multiple times before realizing that what I lacked was a foundation and network to build upon. I finally decided to start within my school, utilizing the English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) department, Student Government and Leadership members, and administration support to carry out the blueprint of my vision. Now, with a supportive following from school faculty, teachers, and students, and the program even being integrated into the curriculum of Leadership classes, we are striving to eliminate stigmas associated with immigrants in my community. We provide cross-cultural interaction and exchange to transform the learning environment for students. My purpose can be much more than helping one student from Nepal.

This process represents something more than the founding of a meaningful program–it represents an intricate journey to unleashing my potential as a student, leader, and social entrepreneur. Yes, this journey has been a long one, and I still have so much still to learn, but it is rewarding to see the lives we are changing and the culture that is evolving in the community. As I look forward to expanding this venture in other high schools across the county, state, and eventually nation, I will keep the values of service, determination, and resilience close to my heart.

Ethan Tae

Founder of the Student Ambassador Program

Ethan Tae is a senior at Chantilly High School in Chantilly, Virginia. He was a LearnServe International Fellow in 2017 and is currently in the LearnServe International Incubator Program. Ethan immerses himself in robotics, music, and tennis on the side.