Raven Pillmann’s Booyah Bash Speech
Many thanks to Breakthrough Twin Cities for inviting me to speak here tonight. I am truly honored and humbled by their consideration of me as someone who could speak to the significance of Breakthrough throughout my high school and college career. I would also like to congratulate the class of 2017. Some of your most rewarding, albeit stressful, years of self-discovery are awaiting you. As you can see in this room tonight, you have hundreds of supporters behind you as you journey onward.
In 2006, I came to Breakthrough as a Native American and German seventh grade student from a single-parent household. I had never felt particularly challenged in my classes and was already excited about the idea of college. That first summer I was energized by cheering, motivating teachers, by discovering that learning could be fun, by the math problems of the day, and by my cohort of like-minded students my age who were all motivated to go to college. Six years later, as a graduating senior, I came to my own Booyah Bash having won a Gates Millennium Scholarship and admittance to Carleton College, a school that would become a central, influential, and liberating part of my life. At that bash, I was absolutely floored by the number of people I saw in the room who had supported me throughout my six years in the program and were genuinely interested in my success. Today, I am fortunate enough to stand before you as a software engineer at a tech startup, living in a thriving neighborhood of Chicago, loving life, surrounded by fantastic family and friends. It’s clear to me that Breakthrough played an enormous part in getting me where I am today. In subtle ways, Breakthrough laid the foundation upon which I could succeed in college.
“It’s clear to me that Breakthrough played an enormous part in getting me where I am today.”
From insisting that I fill out the application on my own as a sixth grader, Breakthrough incubated a culture of self-advocacy, teaching me that I wasn’t any less of a success by reaching out for help. In the middle school program, Breakthrough continually emphasized actively seeking opportunities to learn. Throughout high school but particularly throughout college, I was no stranger to seeking help when I needed it: I spent many nights in the math skills and writing centers, applying for summer funding through the career center, reaching out to alumni for networking opportunities, and meeting with professors outside of class whenever I needed to go over the material again. Undoubtedly, without reaching out, I probably wouldn’t have done nearly as well in my courses, received grants to take unpaid internships, nor made the connections that helped me get the job I wanted out of college.
However, this is not to undersell the importance of Breakthrough’s insistence on a steady work ethic. I remember fondly that my two Breakthrough summers were absolutely full of late night booyah sessions, whether building models of Hmong houses during the secret war or figuring out how to solve for X. I learned through Breakthrough that grinding away at something and pushing yourself to take the extra step to accomplish it correctly can have incredible pay-offs. During my sophomore spring, I had taken a course in Linear Algebra: As anyone who has struggled with math before might know, once you miss something foundational, it’s hard to understand any theorem that builds upon it. This happened to me, and I went into preparation for finals feeling fairly uncertain about half of the course material. The only solution I could think of was to reread the textbook, from the beginning, and do practice problems along the way. In one day, I went through 8 chapters and effectively retaught myself the entire curriculum. I ended up acing that final and walking away with an A on my transcript. It’s become part of my nature to see the benefits of pushing through the challenges, something that was first formed when I faced the challenging booyah I was presented with at Breakthrough.
Perhaps the subtlest impact Breakthrough has had on me resulted from one of the most unique aspects of Breakthrough: the relationships that students build with their teachers. Knowing that I had Breakthrough teachers supporting me through middle and high school where everyone had mutual respect for each other, regardless of age or ethnicity, made me want to engage in my education and give my complete effort. For me, these relationships with teachers shaped my interests later on in life, and put me where I am today. I’m pleased to see that Daniel Bernal is still heavily involved in the program (Daniel, please stand!). Daniel was my algebra teacher my first summer at Breakthrough. It was actually through that class that I entered seventh grade with enough confidence to ask my teacher to move me up a grade level and with enough skill that she granted my request. In college, my love of math continued. I signed up for intro to computer science, math of computer science, data structures, linear algebra, statistics, probability, regression analysis, and more, pursued two development internships in Silicon Valley and Germany, participated in a week-long career exploration of tech companies in the Twin Cities, helped found the development club at Carleton, and organized two major hackathons. Daniel gave me an everlasting gift: he made me realize more than a decade ago that I had a passion for the quantitative, something that has shaped my college career and my life.
“Daniel gave me an everlasting gift: he made me realize more than a decade ago that I had a passion for the quantitative, something that has shaped my college career and my life.”
Before I leave the stage, from the bottom of my heart, I wish to extend an immense amount of gratitude to the donors and supporters of the Breakthrough program throughout the years. Breakthrough lives on the philanthropy of those who dare to dream of a world where every child has an opportunity to rise up, regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds. Donors, I ask you to take a moment to look around and reflect on the impact you have had on me and the class of 2017, forever changing the course of our lives and supporting our ambitions to succeed. Class of 2017, I ask that you also look: one of the most colossal impressions I took away from my own Booyah Bash was that there were hundreds of people around me who both wanted the best for me, and were there to help.
Lastly, I want to thank everyone at Breakthrough who believed in me enough to give me a chance. I remember sitting in a room on the first floor of Capitol Hill Magnet Elementary School, where Jeff Ochs, Breakthrough’s founder, spoke to a small group of sixth graders chosen to hear about the program. He had a metaphor for college: we were all in a maze, and at the end of the maze was a door. That door was the door to college, and Breakthrough would give us the key. My experiences during and after Breakthrough have been proof that Jeff was right: Breakthrough really does open the door to a transformed life.