Recently, I attended a small dinner gathering at Vincent’s with five student leaders from Camelback High School, their principal Dr. Chad Gestson, and a few other community members who have taken an interest in partnering with the school to provide mentorship for its students and help the school achieve its highest level of excellence.

As the daughter of a Tiger Mother, a former Teach For America corps member, and the leader of a movement called “Expect More Arizona,” I’ve always thought my expectations were pretty high.  Yet, four rounds of delicious French courses and three hours of conversations later, I decided that I needed to up my game.  I was reminded yet again that kids can overcome even the most difficult of challenges and the greatest lack of resources if they have even just one adult in their lives who holds them to the highest of expectations.  I’d heard five remarkable stories of persistence and resilience as these students shared their life stories and all the personal challenges they had to overcome in order to be the thriving student leaders that they are today.

One girl was especially impressive.  She grew up in a single mother home, helping to raise her brother who has ADHD.  While her mother had never been to college and didn’t have a lot of money, she said her mother was the strongest influence in her life and pushed her to do her very best in school, insisting she had to be the first to go to college in the family.  In fact, that very day, her mom had been to school to visit the principal to inquire about a 97% test score. She wanted to know what she could do to help her daughter earn 100% the next time.  This young lady is planning to apply to take college level courses over the summer, while all her friends are having fun, so that she can begin to accumulate college credit and go on to be a nurse, or pursue some other career in the medical field.  All of this focus, drive, and determination, and she is only in the 9th grade.  In her case, the person who believed in her and constantly encouraged her to strive for her best was her mother.

Studies have shown that having an engaged parent improves student achievement, but for some students, this isn’t their reality. So, for some of the other students at dinner, it was a teacher, or a counselor, or just a concerned community member, like Rick West, who volunteered his time and money to put this dinner together at Vincent’s.  Each of us can make a difference by building an encouraging relationship with a student and never letting them settle for anything less than their best in school.  Every child is capable of achieving excellence in academics, even when their home lives are tougher than anything most of us have ever experienced.  The least we can do is believe in their potential and commit to playing whatever role we can to help them realize their dreams.  They have worked far too hard, and overcome too many obstacles, for us to do anything less.

I left that dinner feeling excited and challenged by these students’ expectations of themselves, and asking myself how I can do more to build a culture of high expectations, not only in my own home, but in my community and across Arizona. I wanted to share this experience and challenge you to ask the same of yourselves.

Pearl Chang Esau is the President & CEO of Expect More Arizona.