Sometimes All it Takes is an Email

By Priya Rao, PAIR Volunteer

In October 2009, I received an email from my French professor about a volunteer opportunity with Rice PAIR. She described PAIR as an organization of Rice volunteers who worked with refugee youth from “Burma, Bhutan, Burundi, Iraq, and the Congo,” among others. I had no idea that Houston even had a significant refugee population, despite having lived here all my life. Curious to learn more, I contacted PAIR, and soon, I was ready for my first day as a PAIR College Counseling mentor. PAIR College Counseling works with teenage refugees to help them succeed in high school, apply for college, and prepare them for the future with workshops on topics such résumé building and interview skills.

When I joined PAIR in the fall of 2009, we held our College Counseling sessions on Friday evenings in a small room at the apartment complex where most of our students live. We had 10-15 students at each session. I was immediately impressed by the demeanor of the students. Despite having been uprooted from their homeland and forced to learn a new language, culture, and educational system, our students are among the brightest and friendliest teenagers I know. In fact, I was surprised when the students I was tutoring called me “ma’am,” since I was only 18 years old. After being so impressed by our students’ respectfulness and eagerness to learn, I knew that PAIR was an organization I wanted to support.

Over a year and a half, I have had the privilege of watching PAIR grow and change to serve our students better. PAIR has increased its numbers of students and volunteers, started a campus chapter at the University of Houston, and College Counseling sessions have moved into a new community center at the apartments.

The College Counseling program has evolved to meet the needs of our students. We now offer tutoring sessions on Wednesday afternoons at Westbury High School, where most of our students are enrolled. This lets us meet with them twice a week and help them with any difficulties they may be having. We have made changes to our curriculum, based on suggestions from our students and volunteers.

Regarding our lessons, the Rice PAIR student officers have always been open to hearing everyone’s ideas. Since last fall, PAIR College Counseling has invited volunteers to planning meetings, where we can help prepare lesson plans. This is an excellent opportunity as a volunteer to implement your own ideas and truly shape the direction of PAIR College Counseling.

Soon, some of the students I have mentored since my first day with PAIR will be graduating from our program and pursuing higher education. It is so exciting to see them moving ahead to fulfill their goals, and I cannot wait to hear about their future accomplishments. I know that the skills they have developed with PAIR will help them succeed at college and beyond. Several of our senior students are currently preparing to attend HCC, while some of the younger students are already taking classes at HCC to earn additional high school credit. When I see our students’ hard work pay off, through excellent grades and college acceptance, I am both proud and amazed. Their determination inspires me to be the best PAIR mentor I can be and help them achieve their full potential.

Priya with College Counseling mentees

Priya with College Counseling mentees

If I had never received that email during my first semester at college, I would have missed an amazing and eye-opening opportunity. I have loved mentoring and forming friendships with my students. I have met many incredibly passionate volunteers at PAIR who are committed to serving our students. Lastly, PAIR has shown me the importance of educational opportunities in changing someone’s life. PAIR provides a pathway to college and career success for our students, who otherwise may not have had such an opportunity. Seeing its impact on our students inspires me to take further action to ensure all students, regardless of the difficulties they face, have access to education. I hope to make service, especially in the area of education, an important part of my future career.

An email can change your life in unpredictable, amazing ways. It certainly changed mine for the better.