For the Students, By the Students

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire" - William Butler Yeats

For some, college is a time to eat fast food every other meal, stay out late, and "sleep-in" in the mornings, relishing the fact that suddenly there is a drastic change in their own personal freedom. While this reaction to freedom is true for some, for many students across the country, their newfound personal freedom comes in a much different form.

Our country is seeing an unprecedented wave of young people getting involved with community service. This trend was seen, even in 2006; according to the National Corporation for National and Community Service, "the percentage of teenagers who volunteer more than doubled between 1989 and 2005 (from 13.4% to 28.4%)" with "growth in volunteering has been driven primarily by three age groups: older teenagers (age 16 to 19); mid-life adults (ages 45 to 64); and older adults (65 years old and over)". With this many students volunteering in high school, one must ask the question, what happens when these bright, energetic young people get to college? Are they being allowed to serve and use their energy or are they having trouble continuing this trend of service? Additionally, how can these students take their service to the next level?

Fortunately, many of our nation's universities are asking themselves the same questions and have created an environment where students are allowed and encouraged to create, thrive, and lead efforts to impact their communities in incredible ways. While most universities only allow students to "sign-up" for faculty, or "adult-led" community service initiatives, some universities are taking the approach of allowing students to create, lead, and sustain their own initiatives. These student-created initiatives then become student-led, and then sustained year-by-year by even more students, who wish to carry-on the missions in their university communities.

In 1969, a group of interracial students at Princeton University founded "Community House" with the mission of addressing academic achievement gaps and working to address social issues in their community. Today, "Community House" is a part of the Pace Community Service Center at Princeton, the Pace Center being an institution which houses multiple student-led initiatives. Community House has grown to contain multiple programs that support students and their families on their path to a better life, including a tutoring center for local middle school students that is on the Princeton Campus. Community House is "a family that fosters growth - whether it be academic, emotional, social, etc. - among minority, first generation, and/or low-income students in the Princeton area," according to Myesha Jemison, co-chair of Community House and undergraduate student. According to Jemison, 100% of the seniors that participated in their programming went on to graduate high school and attend 4-year colleges. On the importance of undergraduate student leaders, Daniel Rounds, co-chair of Community House says, "It is crucial that undergraduates continue to lead the program because we are at a unique juncture where we are close enough in age to the students that we can relate to them but are old enough to serve as mentors". He goes onto say, "taking an important role in the development of these programs prepares us for a lifelong commitment to civic engagement".

Across the country, at the University of California - Berkeley, their "Public Service Center" sponsors a variety of student-created community service organizations that are making incredible progress in the Berkeley community. One such program, BEAM (Berkeley Engineers and Mentors), is a student-run program, started in 2008 by a group of undergraduate students, who were members of various science and engineering organization on the Berkeley. According to Caroline Wilcox and Matt Zhang, students at UC Berkeley and BEAM Co-Presidents, what united the founders of BEAM was the "common goal of STEM mentoring in the community." In 2008, BEAM set out to mentor local students in their community to help expose them and engage them in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The launch was small with six school sites with which they operated and only a bit more than a dozen undergraduate mentors. Today, BEAM's undergraduate mentors teach more than 300 local students, each week. When asked about their successes, Mr. Zhang and Ms. Wilcox talked about one of the STEM activities that their mentors have implemented - the "Draw a Scientist or Engineer" activity. As expected, when K - 8 students were asked to draw a scientist or engineer, they often depicted "a crazy old man in a lab coat, a social hermit who resides with racks of test tubes". When asked to repeat the activity at the end of the semester students often drew a quite different picture "people smiling of all genders, races, and ages having fun, and sometimes the people they drew were themselves." On the importance of being undergraduate-led, Mr. Zhang and Ms. Wilcox said, "We feel that we are more relatable to our students and we try to bring a more engaging perspective to our schools... We wish to provide students with more than just STEM knowledge; we wish to also provide them the experience of having a mentor... We believe that the experience that we were able to develop and share with fellow undergraduates would not be able to replicated by an adult-led organization".

If we move south, we can see the same commitment by universities to empower their undergraduate students to make a real difference in their communities. At the University of Alabama's Honors College, the "Office of Educational Outreach" was created to be a place where University of Alabama Honors College students could create and lead initiatives to impact Pre-K to 12th grade students in their university community. The "Office of Educational Outreach" houses multiple programs, including DREAM, a character development program; BRIGHT, a pre-k STEM program; CREATE, a high school service learning program; and READ, an elementary literacy program. "All of our programs are student-created and student-led. It provides a valuable experience for both the university students and the students of the Tuscaloosa community ", says Ann Varnedoe, Executive Director of the Office of Educational Outreach and a junior at the University. In the midst of a rapid expansion of programming, the "Office of Educational Outreach" is estimating to have over 400 college mentors in the Spring of 2016 that work with about a thousand local school children, each week. In READ Alabama, the elementary literacy program, college mentors work with their "mentees" each week, working through a curriculum designed by former Honors student Colby Leopard that seeks to "instill a love of reading in elementary students by building meaningful relationships that empower them to become lifelong learners and engaged members society," according to Allyson Liu, Executive Director of READ Alabama. On the environment of the "Office of Educational Outreach", Varnedoe says, "We want to make sure that we have an environment where students who have great ideas can see those dreams become reality."

As a society, we must be aware that students are capable of amazing things, and the stories above serve to give examples and faces to the wonderful initiatives, utilizing this talent, that are happening across the country. If you are a student, an administrator, a faculty member, or are in any way related to a college or university, share these stories and work to ensure that even more programs like these thrive across the country.

Most importantly, if you are a student, a student who has often pondered problems plaguing your own community and thought, "I wish somebody would do something about this" - go ahead, put down the pail, and light the fire.