United Way
of Massachusetts Bay
and Merrimack Valley

September 12, 2014

A Change of Plans

What happens when the course you plotted for your life unexpectedly shifts? Sometimes, great things.

Travis Harris had it all planned. A political science major at George Washington University, he had an eye on politics, making a difference in a big way, on the grandest of stages. Then he worked in his first campaign and promptly realized it was not for him.

His abrupt career change led him to Spain, and a job as an English teacher. He taught elementary school for the first year and middle and high school the next. At nights he taught adults. He even squeezed some time in the morning to tutor preschoolers.  Travis was a teacher. And he loved it.

Now, he’s wrapping up a one-year experience as a member of AmeriCorps (which is celebrating its 20th year this year). He served in Lynn, part of United Way’s targeted initiative to help families and children achieve academic success. He is one of 12 team members, placed at different agencies serving Lynn, working in concert to make a difference in the city.

“As a teacher, you get to give presentations every day and lead a group,” Travis says. “And you have to be creative. You can plan and plan, but if something goes wrong you have to be able to be improvise.”

There is larger truth in these words and Travis recognizes it. Even in his own life, where he had made plans for a job in politics and the track shifted, his improvisation led to teaching. Similarly, the students he works with in Lynn have had their own plans abruptly shift and have been forced to regroup.

Through his agency, Operation Bootstrap, Travis began teaching English as a Second Language to mainly low-income immigrants looking for free classes. This commitment left his mornings open so he inquired about other ways to help and eventually found his way to Adult Basic Education (ABE), classes designed to help adult students earn their GED. It was here where he built relationships and met those who had intentions to complete their education, which had been derailed.

Whether it was refugees fleeing war-ravaged areas or immigrants unable to pay for secondary education in their countries or even Lynn natives who saw their education interrupted for any number of reasons, Travis’s students all had one thing in common: they wanted to finish what they started.

There was, however, one twist. The traditional GED test was going to be replaced with the HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) on January 1. That meant Travis’s students had until December 2013 to pass the original GED, which they had studied for the whole time. For most of them, there was just one portion remaining: math. Never having taught math, Travis jumped in anyway, reading up on the requirements and familiarizing himself with the curriculum. Then, from October 1, when he started, to the finish line in mid-December, it was crunch time.

“It was definitely intense,” he says.  “A high school diploma is so necessary to get a job or go to community college. So many doors open. I was working with all these people right at the finish line.”

One of those students striving to cross that finish line was from Jamaica, and had brought with him an education that topped out at sixth grade. He had worked his was through ABE and had passed all of the GED modules except for math.  If he didn’t pass this time he would have to start all over with the new test. In fact, he had to score higher than average on the math component to compensate for some lower scores in other areas. So Travis tutored him for four hours a week and on the very last day of GED eligibility, and he passed.

“Every time I see him, he’s very gracious and happy to see me,” Travis says. “His family was so excited.”

Now, almost one year later, Travis looks back at victories like this that he leaves behind as a legacy. And taken all together with the work being done elsewhere, he sees a larger impact, action that can help change a city.

“There is so much good work being done in Lynn,” he says. “People and organizations are working hard to make it a good place for new residents as well those already here. They inspire me whenever I see them. I’d like to think I’m contributing to that.”