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As an intern at DreamWakers, I was recently given an incredible opportunity to participate in an event that merges my interests and love for so many things. I am a Bowdoin student, an avid runner, and I am also a former Harlem Children’s Zone intern. At DreamWakers we host “flashchats” (video conferencing calls) between under-resourced classrooms across the country and career role models. This summer, I was asked to host a chat between 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 1500 meters, Matt Centrowitz, and a Harlem Children’s Zone classroom whose teacher is a Bowdoin alum.

When I learned about DreamWakers a few months ago and applied for the internship, I was immediately in awe of the work this organization does. Throughout this summer it has been amazing to see how enthusiastic our speakers, teachers, and students are to connect with each other. I was so excited to see someone I admire as an athlete give back to two organizations that I’ve grown to appreciate and love for the work they do.

To give the full story about how this chat came to be, I need to start at the beginning of my internship this summer, when I began reaching out to Bowdoin alumni currently working as teachers in underprivileged areas. One of the alums responded and immediately signed up to be one of our participating DreamTeachers. She happened to work at the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), an organization founded by another Bowdoin alum that works to end generational poverty in Harlem, New York. I interned at HCZ last summer, and got a first-hand look at how HCZ programming truly makes a difference in students’ lives. As an intern this summer at DreamWakers, I knew I wanted to find a way to connect the two organizations. Luckily enough, through LinkedIn messaging and the power of the Bowdoin network , that connection was made. I handed the HCZ teacher off to my co-workers, who quickly got her teacher all set up to host a chat with her students, and through a partnership with the organization Athletes for Hope, they scheduled Olympic gold medalist Matt Centrowitz to virtually visit the HCZ classroom a few weeks later.

Here’s me very excited to be hosting!

On my way to work the morning of the chat, I received a number of excited messages from my coworkers about how Matt will be the speaker. “Matt who?” I wondered. As soon as I realized who they were talking about, I immediately responded: “Omg! I did not realize it’s THE Matt Centrowitz!” I was then given the exciting news that I would be the one hosting the chat on DreamWakers’ end and that Matt would be signing on to the Google Hangout a few minutes early, giving me an opportunity to introduce myself. Monica, our CEO, encouraged me to share with him that I run track in college and am a huge fan.

I signed on to the hangout at 10:45 a.m. and got ready to facilitate the conversation between the HCZ students and our reigning Olympian. My five minute conversation with Matt as we waited for the students to sign on was great. We talked about track, the events I compete in, his recent experiences with altitude camp, and his upcoming workouts. Now, I think my workouts are hard, but I can’t even imagine doing his! After a few moments, the classroom signed on and we were ready to begin the chat. The HCZ students were in 4th grade and I was so impressed with how well-researched their questions were. For example, one student asked, “How did your dad impact you as a runner?” They must have known that Matt’s dad is a also former Olympian in track & field. My favorite part of the flashchat was when a student asked about how Matt deals with nerves and getting ready for a race. He said to remind yourself of all the hard work you put into something to cope with any doubts you have. As a fellow runner, this advice really stood out for me because during competition season, a common phrase my teammates and I say before a meet is to “trust your training.” I also think that his piece of advice is extremely applicable to all aspects of life, whether you’re in the classroom or on the track. He credits his gold medal win by saying: “I always like to quote that success comes when hard work meets opportunity… The opportunity was there and I put a lot of hard work into it.” Matt also talked about making sure to leave time to do other things you enjoy like reading and playing video games. The students and Matt bonded over their love of the video game Fortnite, and one of the students even showed us his favorite celebration dance from the game.

As the chat came to a close, one last student approached the screen to ask Matt a final question. “Will you visit us in person at our school?” Matt said he would be in New York City at the end of September for the 5th Avenue Mile Run and would make a special stop by their school! The students unanimously said they felt more comfortable talking to a professional after their chat and one student said her biggest takeaway was “ that you could have a career in something you are passionate about.”

It’s moments like these that I believe in the power of connections and education to help inspire students who may have a number of odds against them rise up and beat those odds. Reflecting on this experience, I like to say it was my #BestDayEver at DreamWakers because I was able to play an active role in connecting DreamWakers with a runner, a Bowdoin alum, and the Harlem Children’s Zone community — all in the same morning. I can’t wait to see how DreamWakers’ relationship with Harlem Children’s Zone and Matt Centrowitz grow in the future, and look forward to watching this wonderful organization continue to make a positive impact in the lives of students for years to come.

-Leah Matari

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