Service Learning

“If you get, give. If you learn, teach.” –Maya Angelou

I wanted to help kids get to college.

That was my goal. Publish a book that inspires people, and use the proceeds to help other kids get to a place where they could have the same incredible experience that I did. Simple, right? Well, it seemed that way, especially when I stumbled upon an organization with the same mission as my own, and a tried and true way to accomplish it. I’d send along the proceeds, and go to bed every night dreaming of how that money could help more people like me realize their dreams.

Had I simply settled at sending that check to a PO box every quarter when my royalties get paid out, that’s probably the simplistic view I’d continue to hold. Instead, I’ve gotten involved with this organization. Not as an advisor — I’m not on the front lines — but I’m involved enough now to know about the kinds of kids, the kinds of schools, the kinds of families this organization works with. And that, combined with so many other experiences this year, has opened my eyes in ways I could’ve never imagined.

I didn’t know what kinds of help underprivileged kids need to get college. Like the schools (yes, plural) that don’t even have paper to print and send kids’ transcripts along with college applications, or the kids in Texas that didn’t even know they qualify to go to college. See, Texas has this rule where the top 10% of their class automatically gets in to the state college. “It keeps it fair for everyone,” one of my graduate school classmates said to me during a class this year. I looked at him, inquisitively, having just come from a conference with the Advising Corps;

“But what if the kids don’t know about the rule?”

He raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, like, what if no one ever told them they can go to college?”

He didn’t get it, and six months ago, I wouldn’t have either.

At that same conference I mentioned, a president of a college addressed our group of 500, and discussed all the 13 and 14 year olds in the ten biggest US cities. “50 percent of them,” he said, “won’t do this….”

Think about it for a minute… what won’t they do?

You may be thinking, they won’t go to college. That’s what I would’ve guessed six months ago. But actually, 50 percent of those kids won’t even graduate high school. Only 50 percent of THAT 50 will go to college, and only 1/3 of them will graduate college.

It’s a statistic that’s less surprising after working at a community college this semester, my other job while I’m back in graduate school, another area I had no idea what I was getting into. At one of our meetings on student development they mentioned the state changeover to a new GED exam format, which falls under the responsibility of my department. “Anyone who’s in the midst of taking the test will need to finish this year so they don’t have to start over,” said a colleague, “and that means almost 43,000 people statewide.” Statewide… in a state that’s known for pretty good education.

For one of my graduate school classes this semester I did a research review on all the different studies that have investigated ways to increase students’ multicultural awareness. Many schools have successfully deployed first-year workshops, with student participants reporting more positive feelings about classmates from different backgrounds. Incorporating multicultural content in the curriculum had mixed, but mostly positive impacts, and collaborate learning – making students have meaningful conversations with each other – proved very helpful. Then I got to the studies on service learning.

“What we taught the students, we learned ourselves,” said one kid who’d helped at an underprivileged high school.

“Now I want to work with more diverse students,” said another.

“It’s not really as black and white as a lot of people may think,” one inquisitive young person noted, and no, they weren’t talking about race.

My conclusion in this paper was simple —  What you can teach someone in a classroom pales in comparison to what they can learn from actually getting out there and working. Whether it be increasing multicultural awareness, or, awareness in general.

When I read those particular studies, all I could think was how I wish everyone I know could be exposed like these college kids so they’d understand what I was talking about. And then I realized the only reason I’m talking about this stuff is because I’ve been exposed myself.

Initially, I’d intended this post to be about giving. After all, it’s Christmas, and I’ve done a lot of it in that spirit this month. In fact, while my limited funds as a graduate student have forced me to cut back on a number of things this year, I’ve donated more this month — not even counting my book’s proceeds — than any other year, most related to education initiatives. But then I realized my perspective this year really has nothing to do with Christmas. It has everything to do with the kinds of ideas, the people, and the opportunities I’ve been exposed to. And despite the fact that many of those ideas and issues keep me up at night, I couldn’t be more thankful. A passion that has been sitting mostly idle inside me for these past few years has suddenly been ignited.

I’ve mentioned at a few points this year that I’m not 100% sure of my career path within the field of higher education yet. I could see myself continuing to work with or lead a nonprofit like the Advising Corps. I love the community college I work at as well, and could continue down that road, aspiring to be a dean of students or even president. Finally, spending the rest of my life in academia doing research on these issues is certainly not out of the question either. At the root of it all though, is the idea that I only want to do MORE. More giving back, more solving these issues, and more working to give as many people as possible the opportunities that everyone and anyone deserve.

This holiday season has felt a little different to me than past years; I used to be all about buying the biggest gifts, creating grand surprises; but this year when I go to the mall and see people with loaded up with bags and boxes I feel a little like Cindy Lou Whoo from The Grinch. Why do we go to such great lengths for extravagant gifts?  Why does anyone need all those gifts? I realized recently though, that it’s another impact, and another benefit of service learning.

It makes you appreciate what you already have.

PS: Just because I’m doing more with my passion doesn’t mean I want to do any less with my book. For some new year inspiration check out And Then it Rained: Lessons for Life. ALL proceeds go to the National College Advising Corps!

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