We’re proud to say that Literacy First was a stop on the way to greatness for Cindy Tom, who tutored with Literacy First in the 2001-2002 schoolyear before earning both her law degree and a Masters in Public Affairs from The University of Texas at Austin. Though Cindy has always wanted to work in law, she realized after her acceptance to the UT Austin School of Law that she wanted to take a year off for community service in between undergraduate school and graduate school. Serving as a literacy tutor at Oak Springs Elementary seemed to be the perfect opportunity.
Fittingly for a former AmeriCorps member, she now continues dedicating her life to civic service by working on the Ethics and Compliance Team for the City of Austin’s law department. As the Assistant City Attorney, Cindy advises Austin’s government on ethical considerations involving topics such as affirmative action and campaign finance. Recently Cindy has teamed up with fellow lawyers in town to help form Lawyers for Literacy, a Literacy First affinity group. We asked Cindy a few questions about her journey from Oak Springs to City Hall, her favorite memories of Literacy First, and how she still supports our program.
When you were looking at Austin AmeriCorps programs, what made you want to serve with Literacy First in particular?
Literacy First really appealed to me because it involved working directly with the population I was serving, as opposed to more administrative work like grant writing. As a government major [at UT Austin], I had spent time in college working in and around the Texas Legislature. Improving public education is always one of the most important issues during every legislative session, and I thought that working firsthand in an urban public school with children facing economic challenges would give me a unique perspective on the issue of public education.
What’s your favorite Literacy First memory?
I have so many great Literacy First memories, it’s hard to pick just one! I loved getting to know my students, their teachers, the Literacy First staff, and my fellow tutors. In particular, it was very rewarding watching one my students grow from reading below first-grade level at the beginning of the year to testing at a third-grade reading level by the end of the year. I got to see her self-esteem and confidence grow as the year went on as well. I bonded with all my students, and even the students in my classrooms that weren’t my focus kids, but I will always have a warm place in my heart for that particular student. I had a chance to come back and mentor her while I was in law school as well.
How did serving with Literacy First inform your time in law school?
My service with Literacy First probably contributed to my deciding to apply to the LBJ School of Public Affairs during my first year of law school, and to my decision to earn a dual degree in law and public affairs. I was so used to being part of a community of people who were dedicated to community service and public service through working with Literacy First, and also through my past government and nonprofit work experience, that it felt like something was missing my first semester of law school. I wanted to be around people who were dedicated to making the world a better place. I found that community of people just up the hill from UT Law at the LBJ School, and I think that the extra year I spent in graduate school to get my dual degree was worth it.
Why have you chosen to support Literacy First financially, and to join the Lawyers for Literacy Committee?
Literacy First is such a great program. The one-to-one literacy tutoring that it provides in schools is so important. I’ve seen firsthand the difference it can make in kids’ lives for the better. Teachers just don’t have the time to give that one-to-one attention like Literacy First tutors do. Also, I know that you really get your money’s worth when you donate to Literacy First. There are many deserving nonprofits in Austin, but I think Literacy First is so special because of the quality and quantity of specialized literacy training that its tutors receive. As AmeriCorps members, the tutors are not earning a lot of money, but they are dedicated, well-educated, and well-trained tutors who really do make a difference in the lives of children in need in our community. They make a difference for the better every single day that they are in the schools. I will always support that.
As an Literacy First alum who is also an Austin attorney, it just makes sense to help spread the word about Literacy First to other Austin attorneys, many of whom are very dedicated to community and public service. Attorneys know how important education and literacy are for kids. I couldn’t have gotten into law school or passed the bar exam without my education. And it all started with learning to read as a child.
What career advice would you offer our current cohort of tutors?
No matter what career path you ultimately take in life, you will never forget your time as an Literacy First tutor. You will never forget the students that you tutored, or that one person can truly make a difference in this world. If you are like me, that push to continue to try to make the world a better place may lead you to a career in public service. But even if it doesn’t, I suspect you will always have a desire to volunteer in your community, whether in the schools or in some other way.
Also, if you can make it through a year working in a school and living in Austin on an AmeriCorps salary, then you can accomplish pretty much anything you put your mind to, whether it’s attending law school, medical school, or graduate school, becoming a full-time teacher, working at a nonprofit, or taking a different career path! At the end of the day, having a career where I feel that I am making a positive difference in my community and in the world is what I’ve discovered is most important to me. And Literacy First played a key role in teaching me that.