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Mack’s School Prep – Mackenzie

Today, I’m going to tell you about a personal project that I’ve dedicated my Gap Year to: Mack’s School Prep (MSP). MSP is the academic nonprofit I founded in July of this year with the mission of equipping under-resourced and economically disadvantaged high schoolers with all the necessary skills, knowledge, and tools—an extensive roadmap or blueprint if you will—to take advantage of their education. To accomplish this mission, I primarily leverage two media platforms that I developed from scratch: my YouTube Channel called “Mack’s School Prep TV” and my website www.mackschoolprep.com.

On my YouTube Channel, you’ll find videos upon videos that are rich in information and content, as I take pride in exhausting all there is to know about many vital study strategies that even high-achieving students sometimes take for granted: the secret to time management, the key to creating a homework and study schedule, the art of studying and note-taking, the importance of preparation before class, and the trick to navigating the college and scholarship application processes (including how to ace standardized tests like the SAT and ACT). Additionally, supplemental blogs that accompany some of YouTube videos can be found on my website. I believe with every fiber of my being that the students committed to MSP are guaranteed to see an improvement in their academic trajectory as long as they hold up their end of our figurative social contract by implementing the universal principles and techniques that I’m sharing. Although it has taken an immense amount of work on my part for MSP to gain traction these past several months, all my efforts truly have been rewarded. Not only have I received recognition for my work from sources like the Houston Chronicle (read this article I was featured in!), but I’m also filled with an unparalleled feeling of purpose and passion whenever I’m interacting with overlooked and underserved student populations who identify the value in what I’m doing with MSP.

 

What’s the inspiration for founding MSP, you’re most likely wondering? When I first began high school at Carnegie Vanguard HS as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman at the naive age of 12-years-old, I had no idea what I’d be in for. It unexpectedly took me an entire fourth of the school year to gain my bearings and acclimate to my new environment that was nothing short of rigorous and demanding. However, after a long year of trials and errors in which I had to pull myself up by the bootstraps, I was confident that I had finally mastered what it took to excel both academically and socially at Carnegie. For this reason, the summer before my sophomore year, I was motivated to found an academic achievement club called Swimming Downstream (SDS) that allowed me to invest in the success of future generations of freshmen by contributing a resource that would shorten their learning curve. Admittedly, running SDS for three years gave me the opportunity to be a first-hand witness of the reality that some students begin the race of life with a head start simply due to coming from higher-income backgrounds and having two very involved parents.

 

What ended up dawning on me was that there are plenty of students in society who aspire to put their best foot forward in the classroom but genuinely need some guidance and direction to help them do so. Out of a desire to do everything in my power to personally address this need, MSP was born because in my heart of hearts, I believe that every individual—regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.—deserves an equal shot at success.

Because I completely understand that no two people start life in the same place, it’s through MSP that I want to be a mentor and support system for the students who are involuntarily born into circumstances that present enormous barriers to their educational and professional goals. It’s through MSP that I want to be a role model for the students who desperately need someone to be a beacon of empowerment and inspiration who gives them the encouragement they need to believe in themselves, identify their internal leaders, and recognize that they and only they hold the key to changing the course of their futures. Since education has the power to even the playing field between those students who get that lucky head start and those students who are behind the eight ball, my outreach efforts to spread the word about MSP have been focused on convincing administrators and students at Title 1 High School campuses in the Houston metropolitan area to join me in my movement for promoting the merit of education so that under-resourced students can break free from the status quo dictating their lives and hindering their success.

Every week since I founded MSP in July has been devoted to producing content for my YouTube Channel and partnering with Title 1 High Schools as well as various education and college readiness programs whose mission statements align with that of MSP. I have been invited to lead academic workshops for students at several campuses and have also gotten many opportunities to give presentations to large audiences of students, parents, and school officials (click here to see a recent speech I gave). While I certainly haven’t been cruising on easy street in my pursuit to get MSP in front of the high schoolers who need it most—as I have encountered my fair share of adults who don’t follow through on their word and who don’t seem to have their students’ best interest at heart—the sizeable amount of rejection I have endured and overcome has only strengthened my perseverance and given me more incentive to be the squeaky wheel and never give up on the people I care about!

 

Jonah – First Month in Jerusalem

It’s been a month since I first arrived in Israel, and the experience so far has been unbelievable. For the first week, I stayed in the small desert town of Sde Boker, which is probably best described as a desert oasis. For someone who hasn’t been to Israel before, let me set the scene for you; you exit Ben Gurion Airport and you are immediately greeted by the skyline of Tel Aviv Beach to the west. To the east, after an hour bus ride, you’d approach the hills of Jerusalem. But, to the south, you see pure desert. As I glanced out the window of the tour bus leaving Tel Aviv, I saw the tall skyscrapers of Tel Aviv disappear as mountains of sand appeared and camels walked along the highway.
That first week was transformative—we did over ten hikes, and I really bonded with the rest of the kids on the program.
Still, I was excited to arrive in Jerusalem, where the majority of my gap year would take place. It’s not that I didn’t absolutely love my week in the desert, but after a four month-long summer where I worked in a restaurant six days a week, I was ready to get my gap year into full gear. Even though I have been to Israel many times before (I have a lot of family living here), the moment I stepped off the bus in Jerusalem felt just like the first time I had been to the city. I was relieved, excited and just plain happy. My gap year, that I have been looking forward to for years, had just begun.
Now, four weeks later, I’m packing up to leave Israel for my first trip abroad. Let me explain.
Kivunim, my gap year program, is a mix of classroom learning and field learning. One aspect of the curriculum is learning both Hebrew and Arabic, even though I’m already fluent in Hebrew. The second focus is to develop a better understanding of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. So, every four weeks, the entire group of fifty-five students will be taking a trip outside of Israel (this first trip is to Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey) where we will learn about these religions outside of our Jerusalem-centric lens.
But because I haven’t actually traveled anywhere outside of Israel yet, I figured that I’d focus on my time in Jerusalem. You can probably imagine that living less than a half mile from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Kotel (Western Wall) and the Temple Mount has its many perks. Just last week, we spent an entire afternoon analyzing the similarities and differences between Jaffa Gate (in West Jerusalem) and Damascus Gate (in East Jerusalem) in the Old City. I was fascinated by the diversity of these areas, but was also aware of the very subtle differences between these two areas. For example, Damascus Gate was surrounded by stores and markets with all-Arabic signage, while at Jaffa Gate I found over five languages displayed (Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and Spanish). As I sat observing my surroundings, I wondered what this signified and what I should take away from the visit.

While the academics have been great, I’ve also found a lot of time to explore and engage in modern Israeli culture. I spent last weekend in Tel Aviv (which, by the way, feels like a totally different world than Jerusalem) with all of my friends. Yesterday, in Jerusalem, I went to an Israel vs. Poland soccer game, where I really got a sense of true Israeli culture.  I’ve never been to a soccer match before, so when the Israeli team was playing badly and HUNDREDS of paper airplanes began flying onto the field, I was totally confused (apparently, in soccer, fans throw paper airplanes onto the field when their team is playing badly). I was in the very top row of the stadium, so my paper airplane had no chance of making it to the field.

I’ve never been to a soccer match before, so when the Israeli team was playing badly and HUNDREDS of paper airplanes began flying onto the field, I was totally confused (apparently, in soccer, fans throw paper airplanes onto the field when their team is playing badly). I was in the very top row of the stadium, so my paper airplane had no chance of making it to the field.
I have to be honest— the worst part about being in Israel so far is that Duke Basketball games air at 2 AM, which is pretty rough on my sleeping cycle. I’m usually tired for class.

Makee in Marais

I’m halfway through my semester in Paris (a sentence I can’t believe I’m typing–I feel like I just got here), and feeling more comfortable with my daily routine. I thought it would be interesting to walk you through an average week in my life.

Monday through Friday, I go to French class from 10-12 AM at the Sorbonne, one of the oldest universities in France. I wake up around 8:30AM, eat a quick breakfast if I’m not still half asleep, and walk to the nearest metro stop. I live in the Marais, an amazing historic and cultural hub of Paris, and I’m lucky to have 3 major metro lines right outside my door. I hop on to line 4, ride that for three stops, switch to line 1, ride that for eight stops, and walk to my classroom. The commute takes me around twenty minutes every morning, but with the infamous, relentless French strikes, sometimes it can be tricky to get from point A to point B.

In my 10AM class, I study French literature and grammar alongside 15 other students. I am one of the youngest in my class, and the only American. It’s been really interesting to learn a foreign language without having the ability to fall back on a shared dominant one. Since most people do not speak English in my class, when there is confusion about a French word or phrase, my teacher does not resort to simply translating said word/phrase into a different language. Instead, we get to work our way to understanding the problem at hand using our French, which has deepened my understanding of the language in an interesting new way. I am in a C1 level class (we took a placement test to determine our level), so most of the students are hoping to pass this class to obtain a certificate which will allow them to study in a French university for graduate school.

After class, I grab lunch with friends and then head to an afternoon activity organized by my gap program. Tuesdays and Thursdays we explore Paris in a group. The activities range from baking traditional French pastries, visiting the first street art museum housed on a boat, touring the Catacombs, and facilitating discussions on important cultural differences between France and the United States. One of my favorite activities so far has been going to a Drouot art auction, a multi-story building open to the public to attend the auction and bid on pieces of art.

After the hour long excursion, I typically grab another snack with friends and venture off with them to do our own exploring. I’ve gone to countless museums, thrift stores, canals, monuments, plays, etc. in my afternoons in Paris. One of my favorite parts of French culture is how culturally engaged French people are. It’s not abnormal to find a group of teenagers excitedly gathering in line to be the first at the opening night of an art exhibition, or to see bookstores brimming with people buying new books and chatting. It seems to me that learning is an integral part of the French way of life–particularly learning outside of the classroom–and that’s something I’ve strived to incorporate in my own life here.

I return home to my host mom’s apartment around 8PM. We’ll have dinner together, or I’ll cook for myself, or, more often than not, my host mom will spontaneously have an idea to go to a photography exhibition or comedy show and bring me along for the night. My host mom, Dominique, is amazing. She’s a TV producer and is very involved in the arts in Paris, which has been fascinating for me to learn more about.

On weekends, I’ll have long, delicious dinners with friends. We explore the city some more (Paris will never, ever get boring to walk around), and go to more museums/thrift store, etc. At nights, I’ve had so much fun connecting with other students through Erasmus, which is a European student exchange program that hosts events to help international students connect with locals ones. I’ve met people from all over the world, all walks of life, and find myself speaking French in the most unexpected places.

My weeks here have been busy and full of adventure, each one different from the next. It’s been exciting to develop a sort of routine–my metro commute, my go-to pastry shop, memorizing my French phone number–but equally exciting to be unrestrained by a tight schedule. I’m excited to see what the next few weeks hold!