Jonathon Munez, a Red Hook native and student at South Brooklyn Community High School (SBCHS), traveled to South Africa this summer as a recipient of the Curtis Scholarship.
The Curtis Scholarship, conceived and funded by Global Citizen Ambassador and Pearl Jam manager, Kelly Curtis, through the Vitalogy Foundation, is an annual award to mentor and support Curtis Scholars. There were five other Curtis Scholars selected from around the country out of the about 400 that applied.
According David Arons, who is the job and internship coordinator at SBCHS, Munez was the top overall candidate.
In Arons’s letter of recommendation, he referred to Jonathan as the “glue guy” due to his ability to connect with a variety of people and keep morale high during school trips and group activities when faced with a difficult situation, according to the Global Citizens website.
His mom and grandmother were the first of his family members to find out his exciting news as the SBCHS staff brought them to the school. He was eager to tell many more of his relatives that he would be traveling to South Africa.
“The rest of my family, my little cousins, my older cousins, my aunts, my uncles, I had to tell them,” Munez said. “My brother was the first person that I actually told, my older brother. I went straight to him and told him.”
Munez, who is 20 years old, had the option of writing an essay or making a video to apply for the scholarship. It turned out that he was the only applicant who made a video.
“It was based on poverty in your community and how it affects you, and what the trip would do for you as a person,” Munez said. He dropped out of school after Sandy, and after a series of hardships came to SBCHS, a public school on Conover Street that offers second chances to dropouts. He enjoyed his trip to South Africa.
“My favorite part was seeing the children over there from the townships because those are the poor areas we see on TV,” Munez said. “They are not upset, they are happy and they know about their culture and about their ancestors. The slum areas that people call it, they are still appreciative.”
The group met with schools in different parts of the country. They met with people who help women empowerment groups. Going to the US Embassy also had an impact on the Red Hook native.
He was occupied with various activities from morning to night each of the 10 days of the trip. Munez thought it was amazing being able to see so many different places while in South Africa. A highlight was going on safari.
“That was amazing,” Munez said. “You drive in the truck and get to see the animals. You can’t step out, but you get to drive around and see the animals. The fact that they have so many of the rare animals in one secluded area that no one can come in—I loved that.”
The Global Citizens group visited Cape Town upon arriving in South Africa. They then went to Longa, which is a township area. After that, they went to Johannesburg.
When he returned to SBCHS this year, his focus in the classroom was better.
Arons believes that Munez has gone through a substantial turnaround since he began at SBCHS.
“When he was here, initially, he was very quiet and not as effusive as he is now,” Arons added in an interview. “He is very open, charismatic, talkative and warm. He probably had that in him before but was in a new school and was not necessarily comfortable with everybody yet.
Munez feels that his focus in the classroom is better after returning from South Africa. Munez stays focused on his work and tries to make sure others are on track as well.
Arons really began to see a transformation in his second year at SBCHS.
“Last year, he just came out and started doing more things and engaging with more opportunities with me and with school a bit more,” Arons said. “This has completely changed him, and he is a different person.”
Munez’s goal is to get into an Ivy League school.
“I feel like young adults from alternative schools have the grind and hustle that schools like Harvard, Howard and Stanford want,” Munez said. “It is just that we messed up in the regular high school, but that doesn’t make a difference. We can change. Everyone can change.”
His trip to South Africa has altered his life goals. Previously, his idea was to major in psychology, but now his thoughts have changed.
Munez wants to help a bigger group of people. He wants to do more traveling and try to eliminate extreme poverty, but he really feels that he wants to concentrate on education and he has thoughts on how the system can be changed.
“I want to make sure that education is for all children and can get to all teenagers,” Munez emphasized. “The way that we teach needs to be a new brighter way for kids in this modern day because we have been teaching the same thing for years.”
He feels that textbooks are outdated and that there should be a new way of teaching so high school students don’t drop out and fall victim to their circumstances. He also puts some blame on the technology era that we are in.
“There are kids now who have iPhones and tablets and it’s easy to get washed away into that, so education has to be the first priority,” Munez said.
The Red Hook native wrote in a journal each day that he was in South Africa, and he has seen his writing ability increase since returning from his influential trip. His writing level has improved as he got a four on his ELA exam essay in the past but on his first day back in school this year he got a five on his essay for his pre-college English class.
He credits the staff and the environment at Good Shepherd Services’s SBCHS with helping him develop as a student. This is in contrast to his previous school.
“They showed me why it is hard for me to learn, and then showed me why as a minority it is important for me to learn,” Munez said. “It is up to you to choose what you want to do because now you know the reasons why you do something bad. They gave me perspective to know that I am in control of my life and have decisions to make.”
Munez has always been open to learning, but really appreciates that the school figured out how he works best, and that they combined to put a plan together that dealt specifically with his learning process. With the help of Arons, Munez has been able to get involved in various internship activities that have helped him advance and prosper.
“One of the things I do with the internship program is that I try to have my students work as volunteers on local events,” Arons said. “They are usually good experiences. It’s a one-day commitment, and you see how people perform.
Last year, Munez volunteered at the Star-Revue’s Celebrating Red Hook. According to Arons, Munez loved doing it. The internship coordinator got great reviews about Munez.
This past spring and summer Munez got involved with the Beam Center, which is an after school and employment program that does experiential learning.
“They learn a subject matter and build a curriculum of lessons and in the summer are placed in summer camps where they teach lessons to younger kids,” Arons added about the Beam Center program. “This last year, I was recruiting for the Beam Center experience, he was very interested, I placed him there, and then from January to June, he learned Aquatics City.”
Aquatics was the theme chosen for this year. New York is an aquatic city, so they learned about water, sea life and conservation. Munez developed lesson plans based on the aforementioned topic to teach the 7-11-year-old kids during summer camp. at PS 15 in Red Hook.
Munez started this summer working at the camp. And when he came back from South Africa, he went back and finished the camp season.
“The internship works as an after-school or weekend activity,” Arons said. “It is a paid internship, so they can’t do it while they are in school. That is a reason that this works as a graduation tool. It is a hook to keep these kids connected, and they stay in school more and graduate more.”
Beam Center was impressed with Munez and has hired him to teach during the school year. He and another student will teach a few days a week. As part of his involvement with Global Citizen, Munez will work on a service project and determine what initiative can help or benefit his community.
Aside from his schoolwork and outside of school opportunities at SBCHS, where he is in his third year, he has gotten a lot out of being on the basketball team. His coach told him that basketball is not the main objective, and that school comes first.
“He has always been school first and then basketball later,” Munez said. “He will teach us how basketball has to do with life because the way we present ourselves—walk on the court, treat other teammates, treat people who we play against—makes a difference.”
Munez compared the team to an office setting, saying that one should treat their colleagues at work the right way just like one’s teammates.
Munez enjoyed winning a championship his first year. He applied the hard work that the team put into winning a championship to his schoolwork.
“For someone like Jonathan, it is almost like you add in some important piece into himself and then his self-esteem grows,” Arons said. “For him, it just grows in a somewhat linear fashion. You can see it in how he is, he has just grown very openly and reflectively and talks about it and his life outside of school does not get in the way. For most kids, their lives outside of school get in the way.”
Another notable experience Munez has had while at SBCHS was Outward Bound. Outward Bound is an experience-based outdoor leadership program for youth and adults. He did this with 19 of his classmates in Fishkill, NY.
This was an experience to remember for him since they were in the woods without access to technology. Being in the woods in the cold and dark for two weeks was a successful experience since he thought he might not succeed but then everything ended up going well.
“We consider each other like family,” Munez said about the 20-person group. Upon returning, after the group was sitting among friends they hadn’t seen in a few weeks in the cafeteria, they slowly gravitated to the same table.