Alounso Gilzene grew up in Miami Gardens. He attended Parkview Elementary and Parkway Middle schools and graduated from Miami Norland Senior High School.
He went on to graduate from the University of Miami and, like many young people, took a year-long break from his education.
But one year later he walked across a stage and received another diploma.
City Year Miami honored Gilzene and 202 other young adults Friday night with a graduation ceremony at UM.
The 203 members of City Year Miami graduated from their year of service, in which they served as tutors, mentors and role models to teens who are at risk of dropping out of high school.
Gilzene, 23, served immediately after he graduated from UM in June 2013. He was a lucky City Year member not only because he is from South Florida — unlike others, from out of state — but because he was placed at his former high school.
“I was super, super excited,” he recalled of the day he learned where he would serve. “I not only got to give back to my community, but to my high school, to the place where I came from.”
He said he was able to build a stronger connection with the students because he was from the same city and went to the same schools.
“I was able to help students who grew up in Miami Gardens just like me,” Gilzene said, “and share from the perspective of ‘I was a Miami Norland Senior High School student and I made it, and you guys can, too.’ ”
City Year is a nonprofit organization that partners with public schools to help keep students in school and on pace to graduate.
City Year members are in 17 public schools in Miami-Dade County, including Pine Villa Elementary, Allapattah Middle, North Miami Senior and Booker T. Washington.
Each school City Year serves has at least one team of eight to 12 corps members.
The group’s AmeriCorps members must commit to a year of full-time service in schools. Members receive a small stipend to cover living expenses and a grant toward furthering their education.
Gilzene, the valedictorian of this year’s group of City Year members, said during his speech Friday night that he would often ask himself, “What am I doing here?”
Each time he would get 45 answers — the students he worked with each day.
“I impacted them and they impacted me,” he said. “I became better because of them.”
City Year corps members receive more than 300 hours of professional training to help kids with risk factors like poor attendance, poor behavior and course failure in math and English.
Laura Cowie, a graduate of the University of Maine, taught intensive reading classes.
“I didn’t think I’d use my creative writing degree the way I did,” she said.
She said she enjoyed serving with a team of like-minded people, and called the City Year movement inspiring. With her year of service behind her, she said, she is taking her talents back to Maine to continue doing service, which is what the organization’s executive director wishes.
“It’s my hope that the legacy of our corps members will be that their year of service ripples into the choices and decisions that they will make as leaders in communities around this country and that this year is a bridge to a life of service to others,” said Saif Ishoof, executive director and vice president of City Year Miami.
Gilzen’s year of service helped him decide what to do after college, he said. He will study education policy at the University of Pennsylvania in the hope of having an even bigger impact.
He said he was worried about the year he took off, but knew the personal growth would be worth it.
“It’s challenging. It’s difficult. But I don’t regret it,” he said. “I definitely saw a change in my students, and nothing could replace those 10 months working with them.”