Literacy Programs Help Students Succeed: Student-to-Mentor Jessica Acevedo Speaks at 2023 Blackboard Affair Gala

Jackson MayEvents, Student & Mentor Spotlight

WITS Mentor Jessica Acevedo took the stage at The Geraghty on November 11th at WITS annual Blackboard Affair Gala to talk about her uniquely special experience with WITS, and how literacy programs help students succeed beyond what they could possibly imagine.

Jessica Acevedo takes the stage at the WITS Blackboard Affair Gala.
Jessica Acevedo takes the stage at the WITS Blackboard Affair Gala.

Jessica’s Speech

“…for eight years I had walked through the doors at De Diego as an elementary student. In my fourth-grade year, I would end up taking a bus downtown to the Drinker and Biddle Law firm every week as a WITS Workplace Mentoring Student. WITS became part of my learning journey. Today I want to share with you the windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors WITS has shown me.

Growing up, my parents had always nurtured a love for reading in me, which allowed me to peer out of the window shade. At an early age, my mom would read books to me in Spanish. My favorite was The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, better known as the book that got me to sit quietly in my kindergarten class.  

As I got older, my dad would take my sister and me to the library. He was not much of a reader himself, but he would always talk about how important reading was. And more importantly and enticing for us, was getting to choose our own books.  

Once I reached 4th grade, we were assigned books like Moby Dick, and reading became a task that I associated with ‘all of the boring things you do at school.’ I had lost the fun I had once found in reading because I could not relate to these books. As a result, I started to read less out of school, closing the shades of the window that I was once excited to peer out of.  

The WITS Workplace Mentoring program changed that for me. I remember being so nervous during that first bus ride downtown – I was going to this big building surrounded by people I did not know. But as soon as I walked in the room and saw the books, the snacks, and welcoming faces – my nervousness subsided. I quickly became comfortable with my mentors Amy Lauricella, David Rubenstein, and Jessica Kavannagh.  

Each week, I chose the same graphic novel series. Now, I know reading the same book every week is not interesting to a lawyer, but it said to me, my choice mattered and that my mentors understood my interests. That led to me better understanding others and eventually being open to exploring new genres. 

Thank you, Amy, David, and Jessica, if it were not for all of you, I am not sure I would have ever peered out that window again. 

I want to tell you about the mirrors, that WITS provides to both students and mentors.  During my second semester of college, I decided to mentor with WITS. I wanted to cultivate a love for reading in students just as my mentors had done for me. On my first day as a mentor, I was just as nervous as I was on my first day as a WITS student. I kept stressing over the ‘what ifs.’ Like, what if I cannot connect with the students that I am reading with making them not like reading? However, WITS again calmed my worries. I spent every week bonding with kindergartners over different books and started to realize that they also became comfortable with me, some even ran to their chairs to greet me. WITS does an extraordinary job of curating book collections that feature authentic and validating stories. Because of the mirrors in these books, the students were able to see their lives being reflected.  

My heart filled with excitement as I read to students and witnessed how happy they became when they saw reflections of themselves in books. Because of my own experience as a young reader years earlier, I know how important representation is in books. Reconnecting with WITS has made me realize the invisible string between culturally relevant text and literacy. I know that being able to see themselves in books will make students want to read more. After reflecting on my time as a WITS mentor, I figured out exactly what I want to do in my future endeavors.  

The saying goes, ‘you cannot be what you cannot see.’  And this is the sliding glass door WITS opened for me. Nearly a decade ago, my amazing mentors salvaged what was left of my love of reading. Additionally, my time as a WITS mentor made me realize the importance of literacy and culturally relevant texts for young people. Today, I stand before you as an English major at Harold Washington College, graduating next semester. I then plan to transfer to a four-year university to obtain a Bachelor’s in Publishing and Editing with a minor in Women and Gender Studies.  

With my degree, I will become a developmental children’s book editor with the objective of promoting more diversity in books and increasing the modes of literacy for all. I want to thank every staff member, every mentor, and everyone here today for empowering students to love reading as they develop the foundational literacy skills that they all need.  

And to every Spanish speaker here today, thank you for instilling that same love for reading into kids whose primary language is not English. Como una Boricua de una casa que habla español, te lo agradezco mucho.  

I am amazed at how many people are here supporting Chicago public school students today. I want you to know that when you support WITS tonight, you are supporting me, and the thousands of other students that can see themselves in books, and have new worlds open to them every week. Your time and financial support have had a lasting impact on me, and I feel so hopeful for all the students that have come behind me and continue to be encouraged by WITS. 

As I continue to walk through my sliding glass door, I will always think about how much of an influence my family and WITS have had in my life. And once I become a book editor, I will look back at my time at WITS and remember its impact on me fondly. Thank you.”

Will you help us make stories like Jessica’s possible?

Low literacy rates persist in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and across the nation. Literacy programs help students succeed with the help of your donations, and your support is urgently needed. According to a September 2023 Chalkbeat analysis of CPS test scores, only 26% of students met or exceeded reading standards, down slightly from 2019. The Annie E. Casey Foundation states: “By fourth grade, children are expected to use reading to learn other subjects… kids who reach fourth grade without being able to read proficiently are more likely to struggle academically and eventually drop out of school. Low reading proficiency also can reduce earning potential and chances for career success as adults.”

Literacy programs help students succeed. We need your help to instill a love of reading and learning in Chicago’s young learners by creating more experiences like Jessica’s. We cannot do so without your support. Please donate today.