I first met Sofia at one of our events. We had chatted on Instagram, and from the looks of her account I assumed she had one of those mysterious, enviable occupations where you get paid to travel and take a few pretty pictures to prove it. I was wrong. While she does work as a freelance photographer, Sofia spends most of her time as a college counselor in a New Jersey high school, working with low-income students. Sofia ended up shooting our Real Reset workshop, as well as helping me set up tables, greet people, and pack up at the end. Not that I asked her to, she just did. I’ve always admired people who act like taking initiative is obvious, and try to learn from them. This is Sofia’s story on where she got her work ethic and how she’s passing it on.
“My family moved from Portugal to New Jersey when I was about two years old. We lived in a shitty neighborhood which was mostly Portuguese, and my mom was a single parent. She had me when she was 19, so she was only 21 when we came to this country. She worked in a sweatshop before she started cleaning houses, and that’s how she made her living. Our whole family has always had this nose-to-the-grindstone, get-it-done-and-don’t-complain approach, and that’s something that has stayed with me. I ended up getting a scholarship to a prestigious private school where I was surrounded by rich kids—I took the bus every day from Newark and totally didn’t fit in. To see all of these kids getting things handed to them sucked at the time, but I really value my work ethic now. I’ve never taken anything for granted. I’ve worked really hard for any financial freedom I have, and to me it seems like that’s the only way. I think a lot of people grow up feeling entitled—that things are just going to happen, and something I learned early on (and continue to learn) is that nothing just happens. Everything requires work.
Things don’t just change—they require taking action and doing something about it.
I think that’s where my passion for education came from. I studied photography and worked in publishing for a couple years before doing Teach for America. I originally wanted to be an art teacher, but got placed as a middle school English teacher. I took a college counselor role at a high school after my two year commitment with TFA. For a lot of teenagers from low-income households, their only goal is to make money and get out of their current circumstance. There’s a generation gap, particularly with celebrity culture. Most of these kids don’t understand that you don’t just wake up one day with a million dollars and a fancy car—they don’t recognize the amount of effort it takes to get to that point. I work with one kid who’s really into photography and I try to be supportive of that. But when he gets his paycheck from his part-time job, he wants to buy a pair of Jordan’s that cost over $100. I’ll say to him, ‘Do you want to save up for that lens, or do you want to blow that money on a pair of sneakers?’ Kids have a hard time seeing the long term, but I try and give them some perspective. Like—maybe that will get you a job, or maybe that will give you the opportunity develop. Some of them understand, especially when I explain my whole trajectory, but there’s something to be said for experiencing it yourself.
Sometimes you just have to go through it, and for a lot of them, that’s the only way.
Getting into education was all about being fair and giving everyone an opportunity, and in some ways photography is similar in that it’s exposing what’s out there and showing people what else exists—whether it’s in another country or just in the day-to-day. Most of my photography work is travel related. I think my love for travel has a lot to do with going to Portugal each summer when I was young and experiencing an entirely different world—we would go from the city to a little village in the mountains. I’ve always found value in that, and growing up that was always the thing that I chased. I think that the first time I traveled by myself I was 15. I got a scholarship to travel abroad and went all over the UK, and I was just hooked. I’ve always had that desire to experience other cultures and learn about other people.
Working in education gives me the flexibility to take time off when there are school breaks—so whenever I can, that’s what I do. I’m always torn between seeing my family in Portugal or going somewhere I’ve never been before. At the end of the day it’s a matter of prioritizing what’s important to you, and if seeing your family is important to you, you’re going to make it happen. I think in some ways you can apply that mentality to everything. It might sound a little naïve, but in terms of how I feel about myself and most people I know: if you’re smart, ambitious and willing to put in the work, then you will be successful. If you want it badly enough, and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen, then I think it will. It can be hard to say this kind of thing to my students because there are so many factors working against them… but then again,
sometimes it’s as simple as busting your ass and putting in more work than you think you have in you.
I love working with my students, but feel like I’m coming to a point where I need to pursue other things I’m passionate about. I think the biggest thing that has prevented me from doing that thus far is fear. I think that’s what it is for everybody. It’s fear of the unknown—I don’t know how or if it’s going to work out. Am I going to make enough money to pay my bills? Am I going to be able to maintain a certain lifestyle or will I have to make sacrifices? But you need to think about the long term—if I make these sacrifices now, then hopefully they’ll pay off down the road. For a long time, and I think this is true for a lot of people, the thing that pulled me back wasn’t really myself; it was the conversations I had with other people, and the things I learned growing up. Things like, ‘You need to be stable financially, money is priority.’ It takes a lot of work and a lot of getting to know yourself to realize that your happiness is more important than that. I’m never going to be happy knowing that I wanted something and I didn’t even try.
I think that the worst thing is never trying.
Maybe you’ll fail, but at least you gave it a shot. Taking that leap requires respecting and loving yourself enough to want to be happy in a real way.”
Photographed by Sheena Ocot
As told to Amy Woodside, December 2015