Zach Shen, Summer 2013 teaching fellow (above left) and Maggie, Breakthrough Silicon Valley Class of 2019 (above right)

        Zach Shen, Summer 2013 teaching fellow (above left) and Maggie, Breakthrough Silicon Valley Class of 2019 (above right)

Because of you - Zach and Maggie

7th Annual Are You Smarter Than a Breakthrough Student? 

October 20, 2017


I’d like to take you back to Summer 2013 and the weeks leading up to my Breakthrough teaching fellowship. Being a Breakthrough teaching fellow is an amazing opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a teacher. You are assigned a classroom, create your own lesson plans, and learn the ins and outs of classroom management.

Zach 2017.jpeg

Two weeks before my fellowship started, I remembered my UPenn friend giving me a tip to contact colleges and universities, explain what I was doing, and ask for free college posters and pennants. You would be amazed: Colleges love to give away this stuff – you just have to ask! I made a point to reach out to Ivy League schools and other top-tier colleges from across the country. I hung the posters and pennants in my classroom and used them as a symbol of what the students could achieve. The students were in awe and would always ask me where each school was located and what they were known for.

As those of you who have visited Breakthrough’s summer program know, we teach very small classes of 8 – 10 students, so we really get to know all of our students.  What struck me was the determination of these students to improve. That’s not to say they didn’t hit roadblocks – or maybe more aptly in my classes, writer’s block. But they persevered, accepted my feedback with a positive attitude, and got better and better.  Some of my best memories were when a student had that “aha” moment. Maggie, you were a top student who exhibited a passion for learning and performing to your best ability. And your positive energy was absolutely infectious - your attitude and natural leadership ability always pushed the other students to be extra attentive and participate.


Zach, I was just a rising 7th grader when you were my teaching fellow. I had applied to Breakthrough because education is a huge priority in my family, a dream instilled in my younger brother and me by my parents since we were little. As the first in my family with a clear path to college, there isn’t a lot of first-hand knowledge about what “going to college” really means. As a 7th grader, I had no idea there are literally thousands of colleges and universities across the United States, each with its own distinct personality.

Maggie 2017.jpeg

Those college posters and pennants were my first glimpse of what the world had to offer me. I am now a junior in high school. Over the past four years, Breakthrough has made a huge impact on my life. I’ve received guidance on practicing good habits of a successful student, and on classes I need to take to fulfill UC and CSU course requirements. Breakthrough has also helped me grow as a person and realize that it is very possible to maintain a balance between academics and doing activities I enjoy, like expressing my Vietnamese pride through traditional dance or embroidering for a friend. I’ve also developed important life skills, like time management and professionalism. Having been in student leadership and multiple clubs since my freshmen year, networking in a professional manner with adults and my peers is a must. This entails greeting with firm handshakes, showing eye contact, and being punctual – all important skills that have led me to success, thanks to Breakthrough.

This year, I’m starting to put together the list of colleges and universities I will be applying to. Perhaps, the University of Southern California and University of the Pacific, to name a few, with a goal of becoming a hospital epidemiologist. Why I want to go into public health is because of my passion in caring for others and being able to take part in preventing global health issues. Sorry, Zach, UPenn isn’t on my list. But after all these years, I still have the UPenn poster you gave me. I cried after you gave it to me because I knew how much that poster meant to you. And it still means so much that you continue to see my potential and believe in me.


One of Breakthrough’s traditions is that students write notes that are put into a jar as a parting gift for their teaching fellows at the end of the summer program. Believe it or not, I still have my jar, and when I’ve faced my darkest times, I’ve reached over and touched the jar to be reminded of how Breakthrough students take nothing for granted, and continually push themselves over obstacles.

Maggie, the pennants and posters were a glimpse of what the world had to offer you. My jar of notes embodies the character and capacity that Breakthrough students have to offer the world. On behalf of all Breakthrough Teaching Fellows, we say “thank you” to the Breakthrough students for the wonderful life lessons they have shared with us.


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