From a Member’s Eyes: Personal and Professional Empowerment
by Claire Cooper
In my AmeriCorps position with the Center for Refugees and Immigrants Tennessee, I enjoy the opportunity to mentor and tutor students in the Refugee and Immigrant Student Enrichment afterschool program at Apollo Middle School. Our students come from diverse national, ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. Through my role as an AmeriCorps member, I support our students as they complete language and math related activities, their homework assignments, and a variety of enhancement activities such as art, cooking, sports, and music making.
For me, the most enjoyable moments usually come during our “book club days,” on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when my group of young ladies delve into reading Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue. To begin with, students were responsible for brainstorming book options for the club and then they had to democratically narrow down the list. This small initial step of providing students more autonomy and an opportunity to direct their learning during RISE – an opportunity that is rare in the larger classrooms of the school-day - has clearly led to an increased and sustained excitement for this part of the day. Though we have been reading the story together for over a month, the students’ interest in the story and their investment in analyzing the book has only increased. The students initiate and sustain active discussions regarding the motivations of the characters and value differences evident in the dystopian world of the book, and they work together to evaluate the text. I’ve also been impressed by the way the students in lower grades strive to persevere reading the text that is above their level – something they may not be reliably exposed to elsewhere.
Additionally, observing the confidence that students gain during their enhancement activities has been motivational. While one role of mentoring in RISE is providing positive feedback to our students, I’ve seen most students demonstrate an ability to self-motivate and give themselves credit for their efforts. I believe creating opportunities for students to experience success in a wide range of activities will truly empower students and help them to build this confidence. Students see themselves as artists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and chefs, during a time when young adults are generally struggling to develop or define their identities.
While it has clearly been a personally gratifying experience so far, professionally, being an AmeriCorps member has also been a positive experience for me thus far. I recently returned from living abroad and was seeking opportunities to continue to work with international students and develop my interpersonal and intercultural communication and problem solving skills. I work as a full-time educator for young adults (age 18-22), but this AmeriCorps opportunity has given me the chance to work with students of an age group that I was previously unexperienced with. It has pushed me to adapt my behavior management style, as well as my ideas about curriculum planning. I have learned more about social emotional learning theories and their application to refugee and immigrant youth populations, as well as about the exceptional needs of students who face their unique barriers to education. Lastly, volunteering in the CRIT office has provided me with a snapshot into the organization’s structure, needs, and the implementation requirements of complex grants – skills which may be helpful in future work with NGOs. I look forward to the coming months which will include opportunities to develop and lead science enhancement programs, attend NAZA workshops, and guide students on community field trips.
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