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Written by Mike Quigley, TRA-Worcester Manager
If you ask a teacher, “Describe to me your perfect student.” What would s/he say? Teachers most often say the “perfect” student is a high academic achiever, hard worker, motivated, involved, a leader, a problem solver, a solid citizen, trustworthy and one who has a support system.
At Training Resources of America, Inc. (TRA) we work with students who have a variety of challenges and barriers that often keep them from succeeding in a public school environment. They fall short of the “perfect” student definition, suffer from low self-esteem, experience peer ridicule, and often drop out because they cannot measure up to school expectations and standards. At TRA, we are able to provide these students with individualized attention, a safe setting, and programming that is geared to meet their specific needs. It is exciting to see these students grow and prosper at their own pace. And we are proud of each and every one of them. But on occasion, we are fortunate to experience an extra-special person who inspires staff and fellow students. TRA-Worcester recently had a student who fits the mold of someone we will never forget and will always appreciate. His name is Alam Ortiz, and this is his story.
Alam Ortiz didn’t have the traditional experience during his years in school while living in the Dominican Republic. Alam was bullied to the point that he dropped out of school. One can only speculate as to the reasons Alam was bullied, but there is a never a good reason to treat a person the way Alam was treated. On top of being bullied, Alam is on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) because he has difficulty learning, and the traditional school system in the Dominican Republic was not meeting his needs. Alam’s self-esteem plummeted. All of these factors made it difficult for Alam to enroll into a new school, especially one in a new country.
In 2013, Alam moved to Worcester, Massachusetts to live with his sister who had called TRA seeking to enroll him into the ACHIEVE! Youth Opportunity Program. When Alam first arrived at the TRA-Worcester office, he walked into the welcome area with his head down, his shoulders slumped, and he didn’t smile.
When he met Doug Daigle, his new teacher in the ACHIEVE! Program, Alam wouldn’t make eye contact and slumped down in his chair when speaking to Doug. According to Doug, “"When I first met Alam, he was very shy, very reserved. He seemed to lack confidence...it was evident in the way he spoke, the way he walked. Over time, after attending classes at TRA for a month or two, his demeanor began to change. He became more friendly and talkative with staff. He was much more engaging. He walked with a purpose."
It took a lot of hard work and trust for Alam to change. When asked about his first day at TRA, Alam said, “I was very nervous, I was going to school in a new country for the first time. I was bullied at my old school and I didn’t want that to happen again. But, my sister encouraged me to try it out, and Doug was very nice to me. He introduced me to all the students and staff, and I felt very comfortable after that. I was confident that this would be a good place for me.”
According to Cynthia Vlasaty, TRA-Worcester Education & Career Advisor, “I noticed right away that Alam was a nice boy. But, I also noticed a huge lack in confidence; he walked with his head down. But overtime, he changed.” When asked how he changed, or why she thought he changed Cynthia said, “I remember TRA started Alam on an office internship. He was taught how to answer the phones, use the fax, check the mail, and use the copy machine. It forced him to interact with all staff and students. He helped me out with my tasks around the office, and I could tell he really enjoyed what he was doing. I think TRA allowed Alam to try new things, meet new people, and that he felt respected here. He felt that he was able to be himself.”
Once Alam felt comfortable around the office and in the classroom, it changed the overall culture of the TRA- Worcester office. Everyone looked forward to seeing him. Every morning he would check in with staff to say hello, and to see if we needed help with anything.
He took his ACHIEVE! classroom instruction very seriously, improved four grade levels in math and reading on his TABE test, and studied hard to get his NRF Customer Service certificate. He worked on his resume and found a full time job. He is currently applying for a paid internship with a video production company. When asked about his improvement, Alam stated, “The teachers at TRA really helped me. Leah Rodriguez and Doug were so good! They sat with me one-on-one every day and helped me with my reading and math. Leah made math fun, and Doug always was so nice to me. My favorite subject was doing the internship, and after I was done with that, I really started to love this place. And they helped me to get a job! I have a full time job at Walmart now, but I still come into study whenever I can. My goal is to get my High School Equivalency Diploma, and I don’t care how long it takes. I will do it one day.”
Alam showed appreciation and valued the help he received. He did this by thanking the staff at TRA every day before going home, and he always presented himself as a professional. As the manager of TRA-Worcester, I’ve had the pleasure of working with all sorts of students from a variety of backgrounds, but Alam is different. Alam stands out above the rest. Everything about him is genuine and watching him grow into a man over the last year has been a pleasure. He is one of the students you want to move on to a great job, but will be sad when they are gone. He's in every way the perfect student. He's on time, polite, helps others, asks questions and cares about learning. I like to say that TRA has helped him; he's gained a lot of confidence since he started with us. But when it's all said and done TRA is better for having him, and I'm a better person for having this wonderful opportunity to get to know him. He's a special person who will always be in my thoughts and welcome back anytime.
Alam’s milestones all happened despite his mild autism, learning challenges and social struggles due to a history of being bullied. Alam doesn’t fit all aspects of the traditional “perfect” student definition. But in my estimation, he’s better than that. He’s not traditional at all, and that’s what makes him perfect. At TRA-Worcester, we all learned from Alam that no matter who you are, what your past is, and how academically challenged you might be, if you fight the good fight to better yourself, we will fight with and for you. Alam is a role model to every new student who walks through our doors and the staff at TRA is incredibly proud of him.