Community Opportunities Tap Student Commitments to Service
By Greg Breining | Winter 2011
As an undergraduate, Noam Wiggs observed and helped teach middle-school students at Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School in St. Paul. For Wiggs, who is now pursuing his licensure and master’s in math education at the college, it was a fascinating chance to re-enter the world of middle school students just a decade after his own experience. "You can do so many cool activities with middle school students," he exclaimed.
Eli (second from right) and colleagues at Arlington Rec. Center, including De Anthony, Raeshon, and Isaac, learn from one another’s youth work practices.
Wiggs found his opportunity through DirecTrack, one of several programs available to undergraduates through the college that incorporates community outreach with academics.
In reality, the program simply conferred an official imprimatur to work Wiggs had already been doing. Like many who are interested in becoming teachers, he already taught and participated in community outreach for much of his young life—mentoring and instructing through Boy Scouts, soccer teams, high school math team, academic triathlon, teaching at Breakthrough St. Paul, and serving as teaching assistant for the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Program.
Teaching was a given. “I just love being around people,” Wiggs explained. “It just made sense. I didn’t have to come to a conclusion.”
Outreach to individuals and communities is woven into the fabric of the college’s programs and classes. At the same time, outreach is encoded in the character of many of our students. Many volunteer, even when their classes or degree programs do not require it.
“As a college we do see ourselves as engaged, across faculty, across students, across staff, because a lot of our work is applied,” says Heidi Barajas, associate dean for engagement, diversity, and undergraduate programs. “Many people want to have impactful work; our degree areas are really about people and the fact that we want to positively impact people’s lives.”
Mike Baizerman, a professor in the School of Social Work, encounters students with a passion for working with others through the youth studies program, which he leads. The program requires students to learn from youth studies workers in the field—sometimes in challenging situations. “The University students who come to us are ones that are particularly interested in making a difference in the world. So they’re ready to go out, no matter how terrified they might be,” he says.
Mike Baizerman (left), Steve Randall, and Eli Edleson-Stein unwind before a meeting of St. Paul youth workers. Randall, who works at Arlington Rec. Center, mentors Edleson-Stein and collaborates with Baizerman on staff development.
Youth studies is an interdisciplinary program that seeks to better understand how youth fit into their communities. Students must both observe kids in their everyday lives and interact with them.
About three years ago, Baizerman began working with St. Paul Recreation Centers at the behest of St. Paul Parks and Recreation deputy director Kathy Korum. Baizerman’s first task was to help resolve some staff issues and further the professional development of youth workers at centers on St. Paul’s East Side, including Arlington and Dayton’s Bluff. Soon thereafter, some of his University students began observing and shadowing some of the more accomplished staff workers to learn how they worked with teenagers, primarily African-Americans. One of those students was Eli Edleson-Stein.
Edleson-Stein is creating his own inter-college major, one component of which will be focused on youth studies. “I’m interested in community and what it means, and the many ways it shows itself in the world.”
Sometimes it shows itself pretty roughly. At Arlington Recreation Center, gang members have cruised by flashing signs—and occasionally guns. Youth workers such as Steve Randall have sprung into action, herding visitors into the building for protection and chasing away those who won’t cooperate.
Baizerman continues working closely with St. Paul staffers including Randall, both on continued staff development and in forming mentoring relationships—youth studies students with the experienced St. Paul staff members, University students with neighborhood teenagers, and the teens with younger kids. A number of former gang members take the lead in young men’s groups aimed at keeping others off the streets.
Randall and Baizerman with youth worker Mary Moore and St. Paul Parks Deputy Director Kathy Korum (right). Korum invited Baizerman to collaborate on staff development three years ago, and the partnership has broadened since.
Edleson-Stein began working at Arlington as an intern about a year ago. “I started learning a lot about the way the youth workers worked with the young people there,” he says. Since then he has forged a mentoring relationship with a 16-year-old fellow from the neighborhood. “We just kind of hang out. The idea behind the mentorship thing is that it’s not just academic. It’s a holistic approach to having a person there,” says Edleson-Stein. “Man, that kid has got everything going on. There are things that are hard in life, but I think he’s pretty positive. He’s always out to learn.”
Edleson-Stein looks up to Randall as a kind of mentor with whom he swaps observations about their youth studies practices. “He is always giving me insights and challenging me,” he says. “Otherwise I see myself as a colleague of most of the other rec workers, and I believe that we are consistently teaching each other about each other and our unique understandings of the world and our work.”
Because of his self-designed major, Edleson-Stein isn’t required to clock volunteer or service hours. He serves because of a commitment to youth and his own learning process. “For me the biggest thing has been understanding in real terms the importance of diversity,” he comments. “The world there is very different from the world I grew up in. It’s always important to come with open eyes and an open mind.”
The involvement of Baizerman and his students has been a boon for the rec centers, says Korum, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in youth development leadership. The University’s involvement has been a real boost to the self-concept of the staffers, she says, adding, “One of the things that’s really great is the whole notion of validating youth work and mentoring young people from an academic perspective and showing them that there’s value in continuing their own education.”
Initial licensure students Noam Wiggs and Alicia Rue were the first cohort to complete the DirecTrack program as undergraduates. They had access to experiences in school settings even as undergraduates.
The staffers have been able to teach the University students lessons they might otherwise not encounter. “We’ve been able to provide some of the students an urban, very inner-city experience,” says Korum. “Not all of Mike’s students over at the U have had that experience.”
The city has also gained valuable data it otherwise couldn’t afford. Last year, youth studies students conducted research in the community on how neighbors might make use of a new rec center. Another group of students will research how rec center workers view youth and how the teens view the youth workers.
“That’s priceless for us as well,” says Korum. “It gives the students a very practical and relevant research project, and for us it’s an opportunity to get some really relevant neighborhood feedback that we just couldn’t figure out how to afford.”
Undergrad Classroom Exposure
For students like Wiggs, DirecTrack offers a straightforward pathway to a teaching degree. It gives students committed to becoming secondary teachers the reassurance they’ll have a spot in the University’s post-grad teacher licensure program and an opportunity to observe, teach, and make connections in the K–12 setting.
“It allows them to focus early on a career in teaching if they are certain that that is what they intend to do,” says Karla Stone, DirecTrack coordinator in the college’s Educator Development and Research Center. “If they’re passionate already about wanting to become a teacher, it allows them as an undergraduate to form a community of other teachers and to get some additional background, to get sort of a broad range of information on teaching that will set them up to then focus on teaching methodology when they get into that licensure program. It lets them get that bird’s-eye view and to learn about things that they otherwise might have to learn on the job.”
Alicia Rue is part of the first cohort to complete DirecTrack and continue into the initial licensure program, in her case with a focus on math education. Like many teachers in training, she had already taken a path of volunteerism and outreach. A three-time All-American in the pole vault for the Gophers, Rue received Minnesota’s 2010 Outstanding Achievement Award for student-athletes accomplished in academics, athletics, leadership, and volunteerism. She found she enjoyed teaching and working with others long before she earned a degree.
"I really loved math in school," she says. "I just had a blast. And then one of my good friends struggled with math and chemistry and physics. So we would get together, and I would help him with the homework. To me, that’s what I was doing—I was teaching him what he hadn’t gotten in class. I just really had a great time explaining it. I was excited watching him figure it out for himself. I want to teach because I like to see the students learn, and the glow and the excitement they get when they figure it out."
"DirecTrack was a valuable way to get involved in teaching," Rue says. Two introductory DirecTrack classes introduce students to basic issues in secondary education. “The topics we discussed in class—race, unions, gender bias, technology, and others—provided sparks for what to notice in the schools each week.”
The program also directed Rue down a path for completing the 100 hours of school experience required before students are accepted into the licensure program. “DirecTrack places you in a school,” she says. “It finds a place for you to go. It gives you a mentor-teacher for the semester to go and see. So you don’t have to find those 100 hours on your own.”
She observed and taught at Capitol Hill Magnet School and at Avalon Charter High School, also in St. Paul. Contrasts between the classes couldn’t have been greater. Capitol Hill students were generally structured and disciplined; Avalon students responded to a much looser, project-oriented environment.
“That was a good experience of alternative teaching styles beside lecture,” says Rue. “I really enjoyed it. It gave me a chance to experience different kinds of schools I wouldn’t have been to. It really has prepared me to know something about education before I jumped into these courses.”
Learning Through Service
Besides its own programming, the college boasts the largest per capita participation rate in the University-wide Community Engagement Scholars Program. Community Engagement Scholars must log at least 400 hours of approved volunteering to earn the CES designation at graduation.
“I think there’s some element of students who are doing this work already, and the scholars program is a way of recognizing them for doing so,” says Laura Dammer Hess, CES coordinator. Many students are interested in simply helping their neighbors, while some are continuing their own development towards education and human service careers.
Brittany Haigh is a Community Engagement Scholar, now a senior with a double major in human resource development and family social science. She began volunteering with the youth mentoring program Y-Buddies through the University YMCA. In her first year, she would “hang out” with the nine-year old she mentored and go roller-skating, attend the Holidazzle parade, and tour the Science Museum. The next year she helped run the Y-Buddies program.
For a time, Haigh considered teaching. She volunteered on her own as a tutor at Marcy Open School in Minneapolis and helped with the class’s “mini-book clubs” by circulating among the sixth-graders “to make sure their conversations were actually productive.” But while she enjoyed her time in the classroom, something nagged at her. And that underscored something else that volunteering can do for students. It can have a profound effect on the direction of their studies, causing them to change course and opening up avenues they never knew existed.
“I transitioned,” says Haigh. “I stuck with Y-Buddies but decided that teaching wasn’t my thing. My volunteering just kind of followed suit.”
Instead she took a class in financial counseling in the Department of Family Social Science. “I loved it,” she says. “So my overarching career goal is to become a financial counselor.”
Her volunteering has followed suit. She volunteers with Accountability Minnesota during the tax season, helping those with low incomes prepare their taxes.
The combination of class work and volunteering convinced her that “I really like working with money, and I really like working with people. I always knew that I wanted a people job. I also like the culture of nonprofits and their values.”
She hopes to find similar work helping people get their financial lives in order for a nonprofit after she graduates. “I like helping people become financially secure so they have money to meet all their goals and expenses—so it’s not so hard.”