I guess if I’m going to blame someone, it has to be you.
Tucked in a corner classroom in the science wing on the 2nd floor of North Hunterdon High School, you reign. Your kingdom consists of 16-year-old AP Biology students with chewed fingernails and hormonal acne. Most days are easy, simple even. The air conditioning always forgot how to work, and Joey would stop wearing deodorant on the same day that Sid decided to bring in beef jerky. On days like these, the whole class had to choose between focusing on the tear-jerking stench or a rambling lecture about the cell’s phospholipid bilayer.
We had our patterns. We understood the routine. And we pulled out our lavender scented hand lotion when the Joey-jerky combination got to be too much.
One early Monday morning began in the usual way: a blissfully mundane start. I popped the bread into the toaster and cooked two eggs, scarfing them down. I wrapped an infinity scarf around my neck and begged my dad to drive me to school early. At 6:30 a.m., he reluctantly got into his Toyota Prius and dropped me off at the main entrance of North Hunterdon.
When I got to your classroom, I noticed there were about five other students there too.
“Haley, come take a seat.” I chose the seat right next to you and began.
“Hey, Mrs. Smith. Thanks for meeting with me. I am wondering how I can improve in your class. I know I can do better than a B minus, I’m just…”
You cut me off and tipped your purple rimmed glasses down further on the bridge of your nose. Green eyes with tiny pupils stared at me.
“Haley, why are you upset with a B minus? That’s a perfectly fine grade for you. Is it because your parents compare you to your brother? Do you feel like you have to be as good as him?”
The other students stopped moving their pencils and my face flushed. AP Biology was considered one of the hardest classes in high school, and I struggled with it more than my older brother, Cole, but I held my own. My parents never compared me to him, we didn’t even think like that. I was the kind one who did theater, sang in after-school choirs, and ran the student council. Cole was the jock, the wrestling star, who took two languages and was probably Ivy League-bound. We had different strengths and weaknesses, but what connected Cole and me was that we both had big dreams and knew we had the potential to achieve them.
My teachers had always encouraged me to be my person. I have one memory of a sign in my 8th-grade choir teacher’s classroom that said, “you are enough.” I read it every day, and I believed it. There are moments when I feel inadequate and that sign pops into my brain. That sign meant that I, Haley Marra, was capable of anything. But that morning with Mrs. Smith my junior year, changed me. Her words played in my head on repeat, and her questioning of my abilities led to me cultivating my self-doubt.
From that moment, I learned about the importance of mentors: teachers, parents, and friends I learned that their words matter, and they shape how we see ourselves.
College is a place for students to grow and develop into leaders. When I walk around the University of Pittsburgh’s (Pitt) campus, I can feel the energy radiating off from people just like me. They pack their schedules to fit in minors and certificates, wear professional clothes to class because they go to their internship in the afternoons, and stock up on granola bars because they don’t want to leave the lab to grab a larger lunch. Simply put, these students are working hard. They have dreams that they don’t want to give up.
This energy, commonly referred to as ambition, is a palpable quality. I feel it every morning as I step outside of my house on Oakland Ave and watch my neighbors do the same. I feel it as I roll through the doors, going into the Cathedral of Learning, and hear the academic chatter of the first floor. I see it as I watch nursing students, bundled in huge coats and awake before the sun rises, walk into the Emergency Department for clinical rotations.
This energy intrigues me, excites me, and keeps me moving forward.
Ben Asciutto, a film and business major in his third year at Pitt’s Honors College, embodies this energy.
I spent a Tuesday with Ben in early October. We talked about his aspirations to become a movie producer in Los Angeles or work in New York City on Saturday Night Live. He currently serves as the Executive Producer of Pitt’s late-night talk show, Pitt Tonight, where he coordinates a show every month, including a house band, sketches, monologues from the host, and a musical guest. He has a massive excel spreadsheet of everyone he has ever met in the industry, and the reminders app on his phone contains multiple pages filled with goals for school, work, personal, and of course, life.
Ben greeted me outside his home on Atwood Street at 9 a.m. with an enthusiastic smile, but tired eyes gave him away. The night before he went to sleep at 2 a.m. after working on an assignment, so our first stop was coffee.
With two oat milk cold brews in hand, Ben explained that he knew a career in the entertainment business was attainable because his dad worked for Playbill. So, growing up, working in that industry “didn’t seem that far away and distant as most people think.”
As we made our way down Forbes Avenue, hearing the monotonous voices of the crosswalks’ walk signals, I learned more about Ben’s childhood. He grew up in a town seven minutes away from New York City. It’s called Leonia, New Jersey, and is interspersed with Broadway actors, personal assistants, musicians, and other creative people. We quickly continued down Forbes Ave. Ben said that living in this community made him see that working in entertainment was a real option; it was his high school teacher who made him believe that he too, could succeed in this field.
At 17 years old, Ben decided to enroll in his high school’s introductory photography course. Initially, he liked that it was project-based and subjective but meant something to people.
We entered Posvar Hall and waited in line for Einstein Bros. Bagels. They’re not New Jersey bagels, Ben told me. But, they do the trick when he’s running late in the morning.
“I always loved movies growing up, and you know, who doesn’t?” Ben laughed a little and ordered his usual: toasted everything with scallion cream cheese. We scurried to the opposite side of the counter to wait for our food. “But the thing that got me was my photography teacher who I was extremely close. I still am. She knew I was a hard worker compared to everyone else, and other people didn’t really take it that seriously, right, but I did.”
Ben’s photography teacher noticed his passion and chose to foster it. She encouraged him to create a photography Instagram account, even reminding him to post from time to time. In the summer of his junior year, she put him in touch with a man named Pat Capone, who is a successful cinematographer and works as the Director of Photography on the HBO show, Succession. Ben interned for him all summer and still speaks to him today. Ben took his teacher’s encouragement and let it fuel him through college.
The impact of teachers cannot be underestimated. Medal of Freedom winner, Oprah Winfrey, credits her successes to her fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Duncan. Even as a young girl, Mrs. Duncan could see that Oprah was special. In a reunion on her television show, Oprah told Mrs. Duncan, “I always, because of you, felt I could take on the world. You did exactly what teachers are supposed to do. They create a spark for learning that lives with you from then on… It’s why I have a talk show today” (Biography.com, 2021).
However, after talking to more students and investigating within myself, I’ve come to see that our most impactful teachers aren’t always the ones standing in front of the classroom. They come in many different forms.
Senior at Pitt, and President of the Women in Computer Science club, Diana Kocsis, also had a mentor that made her feel empowered. She calls him a teacher as well, but he is more than that. Diana calls her father her biggest inspiration.
Diana grew up in a family with a mother, father, and two older sisters. She said she always “wanted to stand out:” her oldest sister had just finished medical school in 2021 and the middle sister is in her second year of law school.
“They are so eager to be leaders in the world and make a difference, it inspired me and made me want to make an impact in the world as well,” Diana said of her two sisters.
In the male-dominated field of computer science, Diana leaned on her dad for support. She wanted to be as successful as her siblings, but there were hard nights and days when she doubted herself.
“There have been so many nights of me crying and saying I can’t do this, I’m not good enough, and he’s there to pick me up and help me.”
According to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, parenting styles have a strong influence on the “type of people [their kids] become. Nurturing parents who share their love help increase their children’s sense of self-worth” (“Building Your Child’s,” 2021). Diana’s dad had a supportive and loving approach, which lifted her and gave her the confidence she needed to believe in herself.
While Diana’s father was not her teacher in a traditional sense, he carried the same weight that Ben’s photography teacher and Oprah’s fourth-grade teacher held. These mentors and leaders serve as examples for us. But more importantly, they make us believe in ourselves. They make us value our ambition, and they pick us up when we feel like we’ve lost hope.
Melissa Lancellotti, a senior nursing student at Pitt and a good friend sat on a bench overlooking Fifth Avenue and talked to me about her dreams.
Melissa is the business manager of the Nursing Student Association and is minoring in Hispanic Language and Culture. She’s the definition of an overachiever and in the best way. She just reaches 5’2’’, with long, wavy hair that she had dyed pink at the time I met with her--it changes. Her silver nose ring glistens with the sunshine, and she has at least three piercings up each ear. Her fashion is unique, and it emulates who she is.
Her goal is to become a nurse practitioner and use her Spanish skills to make the hospital experience less frightening for those who only speak Spanish.
Melissa’s most unforgettable nursing memory was when her patient’s husband approached her on the last day of her internship and said, “I know it’s your last day and you're leaving, but I put in a good word for you because you made [my wife] feel so much better.”
Melissa thrives on human connection and is motivated by external validation. Like Diana, she learned a lot about what is important in life from her father. Mr. Lancellotti never went to college and made his way in life by growing his father’s furniture company. He says he is successful because he’s gone above and beyond to make his clients happy. Melissa chose to embody that same philosophy in her work as a pediatric nurse practitioner.
Her father also inspires her with his work ethic. Her father will work 14 to 15-hour days, five days a week, then “comes home, cooks, (he’s the cook of the house); my mom’s good too, but he’s amazing. So, he’ll cook, mow the lawn, and watch TV…” Melissa throws her hands up dramatically, “How do you have time to do this?”
His values of producing good products, caring about his clients, and making the most of every day are the ones that Melissa thinks about when she is feeling down. She has shadowed him her whole life and knows that she too, can be successful like him.
I came into this project wondering about the minds of students with big dreams. I sought to unpack why some kids act on their ambition and others stay complacent. I thought it all had to do with the little voice inside our head, telling us if we have what it takes. But, after talking to students at Pitt, I came to realize that it’s something different; something deeper.
Everyone has that little voice. It’s encouraging sometimes, when we are proud of ourselves, and it can be self-deprecating too. The words that little voice says to us changes based on the people in our life that serve as our mentors. The people that teach us, raise us, and support us have a valuable impact on what goes on behind the curtain of our expressions. They shape how we see ourselves. They shape how we believe in ourselves. They shape us.
Their words are the words that echo in our brains when we face an obstacle; they tell us that we can do it, or we can’t. When we have enough voices telling us that we can achieve our goals, we start to believe it for ourselves.
Ben had his photography teacher, Oprah had Mrs. Duncan, and both Diana and Melissa had their fathers. So, I began to think: Who was my person? Whose voice echoed in my head when I felt like I wasn’t good enough? Who did I look up to? Who saw my potential and told me about it?
And that’s when I realized that Mrs. Smith couldn’t have been more wrong.
My older brother, Cole, was better at AP Biology than I. That’s true. But he was also the one that patted my backpack before an exam and told me: “you got this.” Cole came into my room to check on me during late night study sessions. When I got my report card showing that I earned a B+ in the class, Cole was the first person I told.
My mentor was unconventional. He was a mere fifteen months older than me. He lived in a dark blue room adjacent to mine, with stars that lit up in the dark stuck to his ceiling from when he was a young kid. He’s my brother, and we dream big together.
I called Cole one night and we talked about our relationship. He was just getting off work at an engineering firm in Baltimore, Maryland. He has one of those jobs that no one understands except for him. We live a couple states apart but try to call each other once a week. Every time I get off the phone with him, I feel a little bit better about myself-he’s one of those people for me. I started to interview him about the Mrs. Smith experience, and he said: “Nah, good thing you didn’t listen to her. You’re stronger than that.”
And those are the words I hear in my head when I feel weak.
Asciutto, Ben. Interview. Conducted by Haley Marra, 28 Sept. 2021.
Lancellotti, Melissa. Interview. Conducted by Haley Marra. 5 Oct. 2021.
Kocsis, Diana. Interview. Conducted by Haley Marra. 7 Oct. 2021.
Biography.com website. “Oprah Winfrey Biography.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 17 Feb. 2021, https://www.biography.com/media-figure/oprah-winfrey.
“Building Your Child's Self-Esteem: Children's Hospital.” Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, UPMC, 2021, https://www.chp.edu/for-parents/health-tools/parent-resources/parenting-...
Foster, Joanne. “Ambitious, Purposeful Kids (in an Increasingly Chaotic World).” The Creativity Post, 12 Mar. 2020, https://www.creativitypost.com/article/ambitious-purposeful-kids-in-an-i...
Independent School Parent. “How to Raise an Ambitious Child.” Independent School Parent, 26 Sept. 2017, https://www.independentschoolparent.com/school/raise-ambitious-child/.
Kennedy-Moore, Eileen. “A Better Way to Develop Your Child's Confidence.” Greater Good, The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, 17 May 2019, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/a_better_way_to_develop_yo...
Lahey, Jessica. “Encouraging Students to Imagine the Impossible.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 23 July 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/07/encouraging-student...
“Oprah Winfrey.” Academy of Achievement, 2 Feb. 2021, https://achievement.org/achiever/oprah-winfrey/.
Person. “The Teachers Who Changed Oprah's Life.” Oprah.com, Oprah.com, 1 Feb. 1989, https://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/the-teachers-who-changed-oprahs-life/all.
Polick, Amy S., et al. “How Teaching Makes a Difference in Students' Lives.” Association for Psychological Science - APS, Association for Psychological Science, 1 Sept. 2010, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/how-teaching-makes-a-diffe...
“Students Experiencing Low Self-Esteem or Low Perceptions of Competence.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2021, https://www.apa.org/ed/schools/primer/self-esteem.
Tornio, Stacy. “12 Powerful Statistics That Prove Why Teachers Matter.” We Are Teachers, 15 May 2019, https://www.weareteachers.com/teacher-impact-statistics/.
“Understanding Teachers' Impact on Student Achievement.” RAND Corporation, 2021, https://www.rand.org/education-and-labor/projects/measuring-teacher-effe...