On the official website, Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) is described as “a collaborative effort among Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College and the Universities at Shady Grove, designed to provide students with a seamless and supportive pathway to a bachelor’s degree.”
At its’ core, ACES is a college readiness program offered to Montgomery County high schoolers, and Blake is lucky enough to have Dr. Minjote Mekonen, or most commonly referred to as Dr. M. by her students in ACES, as our representative ACES counselor.
Even though a good part of her job is spent helping her students navigate the complicated world of the college admissions process, Dr. Mekonen does way more than just helping people narrow down the list of colleges they plan on applying to and showing them how to apply for scholarships. To Dr. Mekonen, ACES isn’t just preparation for life after we walk across the stage; ACES is “preparation for life after high school” and “preparation to be a better you, today.”
What Dr. Mekonen hopes to accomplish with her job is to not just help with college and career plans, but to give to the world what she always wished she had: “Guidance, support, for people to see something in me and like, pull it out. I think I kinda always just wanted to be seen, so one of the things I focus on doing most is helping people feel seen and heard, help them see themselves.”
Dr. Mekonen does exactly that in the simplest of ways: By simply talking and listening to her students. You get more than a mentor figure, or a coach in the college and career route when you join ACES: “[You] also get a friend, almost, someone that will listen and understand [you].”
“For the most part I just listen, and if they wanna hear something, then I tell them what I believe is what is best at the time,” admits Mekonen. “I just try to provide support, and usually that comes in the form of speaking, of teaching, of giving them resources, of hearing their needs, seeing their needs, and meeting their needs.”
According to Dr. Mekonen, we, ourselves, are the hardest people to truly see and understand: “For us, when it comes to self, I think we can be easily clouded by ways people made us feel in the past, who we used to be, and we shackle ourselves to what once was, instead of who we are today …but other people, we get to watch them with clear eyes.” And in order to grant her students a sense of understanding within themselves, Dr. Mekonen says that she acts as a “soundboard” for her students, listening and repeating what her students tell her because “sometimes we need a soundboard to help us see ourselves more internally by somebody else.”
Dr. Mekonen attempts to meet her students’ needs as much as she can, and one of the main ways she does this is by recognizing that different people need different things from her. “There are no two students that walk in here that I expect the same thing from,” says Mekonen. “Even the twins that walk in here, they’re completely different, so I think that makes it very clear to me, everyone walking in my room is an individual, and it is my job to learn, teach, guide, and speak, based on what they need as an individual.” In order to do that, Dr. Mekonen has to “read [her] students, and learn [her] students, which is why [she asks] so many questions, and understand how they process, how they feel motivated and encouraged, and even how they manage their time, and their habits.”
Even if you’ve only had one conversation with Dr. Mekonen, it’s more than obvious that she genuinely cares about her students. It’s not hard to tell that she sees them as more than just someone she has to guide for a class period or two; Dr. Mekenon sees her students for the people that they are, and the people she knows they can be. With the right advice, of course.
Although Dr. Mekonen’s job is to teach and guide the students that walk through her door, “there isn’t a day where [she doesn’t] learn from a student,” either. “[My students] challenge me to work on the fly, to be stern, but like, also be loving, but I can’t be so loving that I don’t hold them accountable, you guys teach me balance. You teach me how to be there for you, but also not let you get away with nonsense. Everyday I’m learning something from kids, everyday my life is being changed by their stories, their desires, by their hopes, by the fire in them.”
“Helping people is a day-to-day decision and behavior,” affirms Dr. Mekonen. “It can’t just be a job or role, it’s a decision.”At its core, Dr. Mekonen’s job revolves around helping people. something she’s always known she wanted to do. “In this role you do help students regularly,” admits Mekonen. “But, you’re also helping their families, you’re also helping your colleagues, you’re also helping—I don’t technically work for Blake or MCPS—I’m also helping my colleagues.” Dr. Mekonen recognizes that her guidance does not only affect her students; her words echo through the lives of all the lives that her students touch, as well.
Being in ACES has changed a lot of students’ lives, mine included, but it has also changed Dr. Mekonen’s life, as well. “Being in this role has taught me to want more, to want to do more, to want to help more. It’s also helped me be more confident in my abilities, in my skill set, in my unique skill set, and how I can use that, at large, to make the world a better place.”
Without a doubt, Dr. Mekenon makes the world a better place with every interaction she has with her students. With every interaction she has with an ACES member. Dr. Mekonen sends them out wiser, stronger, kinder, and more ready to take on the world before them. She’s an inspiration to not only me, not only the members of ACES, but to absolutely anyone that she encounters.