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Learning a new language can be hard. Music can make it easier.

Sometimes an opportunity is all you need to become a better version of yourself.

One day, during the fall of 2016, 60-year-old Olga was shopping in downtown Boston when she overheard several women raving about the English class they were taking.

Olga grew up in Moca, in the Dominican Republic. She came to the United States in 1993 with her daughter and lived with family in New Jersey at first, where she worked at a sweater factory. In 2014, she moved to Boston, where she lives today.

A self-described busybody, Olga hates wasting time. She would much rather use her time to improve herself. Now, in Boston, when she's not knitting or working as a seamstress at David's Bridal, she's crocheting, reading, or watching the news on television.


When Olga overheard these women, she had been looking for a place to take English classes for a long time. She marched over to them and asked about the classes, which they said were being offered for free at Rosie's Place in downtown Boston.

Image by Rosie's Place, used with permission.

Rosie's Place was founded in 1974 as the self-described "first women's shelter in the U.S." They help homeless and low-income women find opportunities to better their lives.

"Just tell me where it's located, and I'll find it," Olga says she told the women.

She immediately walked out of the store and headed to Harrison Avenue in downtown Boston. She says she missed the shelter at first, almost walking into a CVS instead. But when she did walk through the doors at Rosie's Place, she was instantly excited. She was told she qualified for their English courses and was given instructions to attend the next class. She hasn't stopped going back since.

These classes aren't just any classes, and that's where the story gets good.

Olga found out that she wouldn't be completing a typical "This is how you say 'dog,'" lecture type course. Instead, her classes would be designed by Berklee College of Music students. These students would be trying out new and exciting approaches that help people retain information through music.

Kevin Leong is one of those students. He's a graduate student at Berklee College of Music and an international student. Kevin has helped run and structure this program for the past year. Essentially, the program uses a specific tool — music, and songwriting in particular — to empower women, teaching them conversational English.

For the past semester, 10 to 15 women (including Olga) have committed to learning a new language with the help of these dedicated students. Kevin says there's an 82-year-old woman from China who inspires him because she refuses to take "no" for an answer. He says she said, "I don’t speak English, but it’s never too late to learn a new language.”

Most people learn faster with music because it's a powerful mnemonic tool. Songwriting and singing are memory aids.

For example, think of the alphabet song. The letters aren't linked to one another, but it's the music that binds the syllables together to give the song meaning.

That's why using songwriting helps students like Olga pick up English a little more quickly. By having them repeat the words in a song, it helps them practice articulation and better remember the words themselves.

Kevin Leong. Image from Berklee Graduate Studies Department, used with permission.

Kevin says the women in his class feel validated and thankful because they have a place to share their stories from the past while learning a new language. Through their collective songwriting, they've come to learn that one woman was a psychologist in her home country, another a hydraulic engineer, and another, a physician.

“To see some women travel from an hour and a half outside of Boston just to come to class to learn English ... is really inspiring," Kevin says. "To be able to be a part of that, and to make it interesting for them, and to see it being effective ... is extremely gratifying.”

For Olga, this class has made all the difference.

For one, she says she's never received so much loving attention as she has in these classes at Rosie's Place. She feels she's learned a lot in just four months and loves the way they teach. She also lives alone, so she looks forward to attending every class.

"All the women I meet, I encourage them by saying, 'Go! Go! This class is very interesting, very important," she says. "Besides, they teach us with lots of love.'"

And second, Olga almost didn't get her job because she didn't speak much English. Now, she's excelling: She says she can better understand the people around her, and she can also contribute to the conversations at work too.

Now, when she attends class at Rosie's Place and one of her teachers greets her with "Good morning, Olga," she feels extremely proud that she's able to reply with "How are you?"

"You know when you’re older, sometimes it’s more difficult to comprehend new things, but here, I’ve learned a lot," Olga says. "I can understand some English now — not a lot — but I’ve accomplished a whole lot.”

The semester will be over soon, but Olga has plans to tackle a writing class in the fall.

Image by Rosie's Place, used with permission.

At a time when a lot of people are questioning whether the all-mighty "American dream" is alive and well, Olga is proof that it is.

The American dream is all about being given the opportunity to reach for your goals. And while Olga came to America with little, she has slowly but surely found a way to carve out a positive path for herself.

In a time when it feels as though things may be moving backward in America, especially for immigrants, this program should give us hope.

Olga and Kevin are a beautiful testament to the fact that these dreams still exist, and that good people are working to make America a welcoming, successful place for immigrants.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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