What does service mean? A College Student’s Perspective – An interview with Ryan Vance, Saint Joseph’s University class of 2016
By Caitlin Fritz and Ryan Vance
As I begin my new position as the K-16 Partnerships Manager at PHENND, I have had the chance to interact with many of our university partners who engage college students in service to our public schools. Thinking about this valuable work has given me the opportunity to reflect on the college students’ perspective. Just why do students get involved in the first place? What drives students, who are busy balancing demanding academic and social schedules, to take the time to serve in our public schools?
I took the opportunity to find out firsthand by interviewing Ryan Vance, a student I have previously worked with at Saint Joseph’s University (SJU). Ryan is currently a senior Biology Major and a Chemistry Minor, who has participated in numerous education-related outreach activities in the Philadelphia public schools including GeoKids LINKS (a collaboration between SJU and the Wagner Free Institute of Science), service learning, and Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
Q: Can you briefly describe the types of activities you have participated in and what schools/grades you have worked with?
Regarding science outreach, I started with a service learning course my junior year at SJU. Once a week the class would meet and there would be a seminar portion and a service portion. During the seminar, the class would analyze an article pertaining to urban education; this would provide us with the tools to create the best possible learning environment at our service site, Samuel Gompers School. After a class discussion, we got to actually engage with the kids which was the fun part. We would walk over to Gompers, adjacent to SJU’s campus, and conduct an hour and a half lesson (a small lecture and an engaging activity/experiment) on topics that corresponded to the school district’s 4th grade curriculum, earth science (in the fall) and life science (in the spring).
In the spring of my junior year, I became a fellow for the GeoKids LINKS program. As a fellow I work with SJU Biology graduate students and educators from the Wagner Free Institute of Science to teach hands-on science in three North Philadelphia schools. The classes are run in a similar style as service learning: a small lecture and an in depth activity to get the students to drive the class in an inquiry-based manner. My role in GeoKids, as opposed to a lead teacher role in service learning, is geared toward one-on-one support of students and leading small groups. As much as I enjoy leading the lessons, this more targeted role has actually been more enlightening. Working individually with students allows me to learn about their personalities, backgrounds and interests; knowledge that is vital for caring for and shaping the whole student. Some of the sites I have served in are William D. Kelley School, Robert Morris School, and I am currently working in a 5th grade class at the Gen. Philip Kearny School.
Q: How did you first get involved in service to our public schools?
I started my college service experience my sophomore year with Big Brothers, Big Sisters (BBBS). As a student at a Jesuit institution, I felt compelled to immerse myself in the community. I suppose I combined my love of learning and interest in urban education to point me towards engaging in service to our public schools. With BBBS, I mentored a third grade student at Gompers. This mentorship wasn’t focused on teaching a specific subject, but focused on having conversations about school, playing sports at recess, and building friendships.
Q: As you balance your academic demands and applying to medical schools, what continues to drive you to still engage in science outreach?
As I go through my coursework and applications to medical school, I think I become more motivated to share my knowledge and love of science. Although medicine and education seem like two distinct paths, they are grounded in the same ideologies and set of values. You are giving an individual (student or patient) the guidance and tools to move forward and attain their goals. For me, a mission of social justice that is rooted in my Jesuit education and values, such as caring for the whole person, drives me now and will continue to drive me into my professional career.
Q: As you look towards graduation and beyond, what will be the biggest things you will take away from your experiences?
A particular experience from one of my classes stands out in my mind. During one second grade lesson about farm animals, the class was making an arts and craft model. I was helping one group with gluing, cutting, etc. when one student came to me and said “look at my rap!” The student had written rap lyrics on what he was learning about farm animals. Even though this student may not have been on task with the lesson, this situation stuck with me. I was really inspired with how this student was able to express his own interests about what he was learning in class. This ‘farm animal rap’ really made it clear to me the importance of making science a part of the students’ everyday lives. If they are able to freely inquire and make the subject personal, the students will hopefully let it guide them into a successful future.
Science outreach has not only enriched the students’ lives, but it has taught me to be a better learner. Speaking to a class of students, for example teaching Mendelian genetics to a group of high school sophomores this past summer, has allowed me to become better versed in my own studies. When I can more efficiently explain a scientific topic to one of my own peers, I am able to learn the topic more effectively. Most important for my own personal development, I have learned to become a better listener. Through working with students of a variety of ages, I have found that something can always be learned by empathically listening to someone’s ideas and stories.
Q: Finally, what advice do you have for those looking to engage college students in service to public schools?
When advertising the service opportunity, just make it as relatable as possible for college students. If students truly love a certain topic, I think they’ll be willing to talk about it to anyone, especially kids. When recruiting college students to serve, give them the opportunity to engage public school kids in the topic they love, whether it be science, literature, math, etc. In addition, it also helps to give college students the ability to serve as close to campus as possible to make it more personal for them (and they’ll save gas/transportation money). Part of what hooked me in was the proximity of Gompers. I enjoy all the schools I serve at, but Gompers remains a sort of safe haven for me as a teacher and I am excited to continue working with the students at Gompers this semester.
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