Imagine you arrive in a world where it rains all year round, and daylight swings from 17 hours in summertime to a paltry six in winter. And you’re only seven years old. That’s the situation Jasmine Molina found herself when she first got to Sitka, over 5,000 miles from her native city of Manila in the Philippines.
Sitka’s Filipino population has grown substantially in the past five years, but there remains no formal system to help new students transition to school. That is, until Jasmine came to town.
“Hello – ang pangalan ko ay Jasmine Molina.”
There’s something about Jasmine that makes you want to talk to her.
“It’s a pretty big school compared to the Philippines,” she said, walking down the hallway.
Maybe it’s her big brown eyes or her silky black hair, which she quickly tucks behind her ear while dialing her locker combination. But it’s probably her smile , which turns her face into a huge pair of parentheses. And when Jasmine sees a new Filipino student?
“I just like want to go up to them and be like, “Hey, do you want to be my friend?” And they’ll be like, “Yeah.” And I’ll be like, “Cool,”’ Jasmine said. “Everyone says I’m weird. But weird is awesome. I think weird is awesome.”
Oh, and she’s got killer self-confidence. Again, not your typical middle schooler.
Janelle Farvor was Jasmine’s language arts teacher last year. “She’s funny. Sensitive. And she’s generous,” Janelle said.
Janelle remembers the very first time she saw Jasmine. At the grocery store, with a bunch of other Filipino kids, talking.
“I thought, ‘What is this little girl doing?’ She’s talking so fast, and I just kinda observed a little bit and then I saw her pointing out things and showing things, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this little girl is explaining how this store works,’” Janelle said.
Janelle saw her again a few years later. She’d grown a bit taller, but was doing the same thing.
“I thought, I wonder if she’s an ambassador,” Janelle said. “These kids all look very new. They’re just wide-eyed and mouth agape, wondering what this is about, what this can is of. And there was Jasmine, explaining it all.” And last year, when Janelle met her 6th grade class, Jasmine was in it – all grown-up.
Jasmine’s dad is a fisherman and came to Sitka five years ago. Jasmine and her mom followed, a month later.
“I was really shy,” Jasmine said. “I didn’t really know anything about Sitka until my cousin showed me around the next day. There was a lot of tall people.”
And not only that, but it was several degrees colder than in Manila, where Jasmine grew up.
“I only had one jacket and it was really cold and there was a lot of snow on the ground,” Jasmine said.
As she got used to the cold, one thing that made a big difference to Jasmine was meeting other kids her age.
“On the first day I went to second grade they’re like, ‘Hey what’s your name?’ I’m like my name is Jasmine. I came from the Philippines.’ They’re like, ‘Cool.’ I wanted to do the same thing and make people comfortable where they are,” she said.
And it’s something Jasmine has been doing ever since. Greeting new families and showing their kids the ropes, from how to open a locker to getting around the building. Every now and then, students will leave school to go visit family in the Philippines and be gone for months at a time. Jasmine has been known to tutor and to translate those long term assignments from English into Tagalog.
It’s more than middle school survival tactics. Jasmine is helping her classmates succeed in a Western school.
“And for her to do it on her own volition, and to just see a need and to step up to fill a need, I think that says a lot about her character,” Janelle said.
At Blatchley Middle School, there are 29 Filipino students and in the whole district, 121, making up 9% of the Sitka student body. At the bottom, the school district doesn’t have a designated Tagalog speaker or support group to help students orient themselves. But for now, Jasmine fills that gap.
“I’ve had her – even I’ve brought her down to help me scold,” Janelle said. “They need to not be so chatty or whatever, I have her talk to them in Tagalog to hear a lecture in the mother tongue. There’s nothing like it.”
Now, it’s hard to imagine Jasmine yelling at anyone. And if you asked her if she’s an ambassador or a leader, she’d probably say no. She’s just being a friend. Antonete Partido remembers meeting Jasmine in dance class.
“When I first got here, she talked to me instead of just ignoring me.,” she said.
The two girls chatted in both English and Tagalog. Antonete lives with her grandmother, who adopted her. She hasn’t seen her parents for five years and describes her family as broken apart.
“I don’t really get to call them because I have school. My grandma has work. So we don’t really have time to call them,” Antonete said. “I don’t think other people know that my parents aren’t here because I don’t show my feelings to them.”
But Jasmine knows. And when we finish the interview, Jasmine takes Antonete aside and says, “you’re my one.” She says it again, “Don’t forget. You’re my one.” And with that, Jasmine turns on her heels and heads out the door to go to her next class.
This year, Jasmine Molina was nominated for a Spirit of Youth award, which recognizes teens making a difference in Alaska.