Monday, June 3, 2019

HAPPY GRADUATION, SENIOR CLASS OF 2019! BY ALEXIS BURTON

Valedictorian and Salutatorian walking to their seats
 at the start of the ceremony
Spring has sprung, as they say, with summer clinging tight to the tail end of this season, ready to move in at a thunderstorm’s notice. All of the seniors at Troy High School have completed their last day of school, checked out of their classes, cleaned their lockers, returned their books to the library and submitted their final papers and projects. With them gone, my office feels empty, though my door remains open. Perfect time to reflect on all that has occurred this year, and the impact the seniors have had on the student body and myself.


In the beginning of September, the GEAR UP team and I divided all 29 seniors into small “focus groups” as we called them, so we could have meaningful, one-on-one conversations about their goals and plans in order to create specific and targeted plans for their senior year. Over the next few months, our groups became share spaces for important information and deadlines, upcoming scholarships, events, college application materials, and other how-to -adult items as they came up. We hosted a FAFSA night, where parents brought in their taxes and received guidance from the GU team, myself and a representative of Reach Higher Montana to fill out the FAFSA with confidence. We had a Do’s and Donuts of Scholarships evening where we shared information (and donuts) about different financial aid options, tips for writing good essays and how to find appropriate scholarships per circumstances. We hosted the largest Career Fair THS has seen yet, and later had a Reality Fair focused on learning how to budget. We funded nearly 20 field trip visits to various colleges, and had additional funding set aside for students who wanted to check out other schools with their folks that reimbursed travel costs and paid for hotel stays and meals. By spring break, all 29 seniors had been admitted to a community college or university, and have applied for thousands of dollars worth of local scholarships. Not all of them plan to attend school right away, but the fact remains that their admittance into schools shows how capable they each are, and how many options they have ahead of them.

Senior Paige giving the introduction for Ms. Maust, the
class’s elected speaker. This class is Ms. Maust’s first
 group of freshmen-senior cohort, making these introductions
and speeches real tear-jerkers. 

As the school year has gone on, our specific focus groups have organically disbanded, and in its place has arisen a broadly welcoming center for all who have questions about life and college, as well as a place to gather to share stories and apprehension at leaving the bubble they’ve known all their lives. My office may feel empty, but my heart has never been so full. I am proud to call many of these students friends, and on their last day I handed out cards full of congratulations and encouragement. I shared a poem that was given to me when I graduated college, and many of them now have it posted up where they will see it every day to pull further encouragement from.

I’ve read countless entrance and scholarship essays, shared life advice, and called numerous college offices with my students to help them get questions answered about dorm life, financial aid, class registration, and how to make friends at school. I’ve come in after hours and on days off to meet with students to answer questions, responded to middle-of-the-night-panic emails, and written several letters of recommendation. On June 1st, 2019 I had the privilege of attending their graduation, and watched all of them walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. One of my students wore a pair of heels I gave her that I wore at my own high school graduation, and another wore a dress I gave her. These students have worked their way through tremendous odds to make it to the point they are at today, and have the resilience to continue facing anything that tries to stand in their way. With the support of programs like GEAR UP and MTCC cheering for continued education, countless students across Montana will be encouraged to make their dreams into realities year after year.
Seniors tossing their caps at the end of the ceremony.

Congratulations, Troy High Class of 2019. You are officially 2019% done with high school! :’)

Thursday, May 23, 2019

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: THE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN AGENCY AND INSTRUCTION BY CHANDLER PADGETT

After years of waiting, the Boys & Girls Club of Richland County moved into its new building in March. Amid the pristine white walls, shiny steel kitchen, and ample programming space there sparkled a host of hopes and expectations for what we would accomplish free of our previous limitations. In May, the last month of school, I planned to channel these goals into my art program—to take full advantage of our new resources and involve our entire club community in a collaborative project.
I decided the project would take the form of a village; in an attempt to engage the interests of as many members as possible and to encourage creativity, I didn’t set any stipulations on what was made—just that it had to fit on the allotted space. The result was a middling motley of creations that varied greatly in effort, construction, and style: a Cenex station with no cars to fuel, a number of one-walled houses, and only one lonely person to enjoy it all.
I was a little disappointed in the end. Should I have been more structured and strict in my requirements? Would that have just made the kids lose interest in the project? I struggled to find a balance between agency and instruction; I didn’t want to dampen the students’ imagination and creativity, but I also wanted to give form, shape, and a definite lesson to the project. For example, though I tried to push kids to make more buildings and to put more effort into their creations, they often wanted to make a small animal sculpture or quickly move on to something new.
Ultimately, around 20 members participated, which is about a third of our daily attendance. There were definitely bright moments of the collaboration and creativity I hoped to achieve: discussion about the layout and placement of the village, cooperation between grade levels on unique ideas. It’s hard to measure what the kids learned and how much fun they had doing so (which is more important than the end result), and I’m not entirely sure what I learned myself—maybe there’s some deeper lesson about community buy-in or the eventual futility of gasoline—but going forward into summer camps, I hope to educate in a way that’s both informative and fun.




Monday, May 13, 2019

FINDING A LOVE FOR STEM EDUCATION BY LANA PETRIE

When I was little, I didn’t have the normal childhood most kids have growing up. I was diagnosed at age 5 with chronic pancreatitis. I was the youngest case Vanderbilt Hospital had, so they didn’t really know how to fix my pain. I had multiple surgeries and hospital stays throughout those years. It is kind of surreal to think about now. Yet, despite these struggles, I did learn that I had a love for science and serving people. I saw my doctor, Dr. Wallace Neiblit, constantly thinking outside of the box to help me. He also had a crew of resident doctors that would come in, read off my case like on Grey’s Anatomy, and brainstorm with Dr. Neiblit. My doctor was devoted to helping me and was able to do so (put simply) through science.

Fast forward to present day, and I am an AmeriCorps Senior Leader serving with MTCC. I get to serve students and help spread my love for STEM Education. Especially due to my past, STEM Education is close to my heart. Now, I want students to understand their potential and see how much fun STEM programs are. As such, I treasure any chance I get to work with students and cultivate their appreciation and love for science.

The most rewarding experience I have had thus far in this pursuit was creating science fair projects with students at Hot Springs School. Each student got the chance to show their personalities in each project. One had a love for animals and did a project testing bacterial growth of her dogs’ mouth compared to her own. Another project was focused on water quality of lakes in the surrounding areas. There was such a wide range of ideas and interests among the four projects, but, at the end of the day, it was brought out through having a passion for science.

Seeing all of their projects on display at the SKC Science Fair Festival helped remind me that making science fun can show students that STEM careers are fun. It reminded me how Dr. Neiblit used science to help me get better and why I eventually chose a STEM career in Agriculture. I hope to continue to spread my love of science to students wherever I go. You never know how students will respond to your lessons, but sometimes it can be the best surprise.





Wednesday, May 1, 2019

EMPOWER PLACE SCIENTIST BY JORDAN FERNANDEZ


As the spring floats in briskly with the cloud spotted sky, Missoula slowly waves goodbye to winter. In with the sun through the windows of EMPower Place, we find ourselves at the after school club, on a Thursday evening. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, EMPower Place hosts programming with cooking classes for kids, science activities and much needed post formal education play. Thursdays are my favorite day of the week, because I get to host the science activity. These children usually go bananas over the activity, it gets a little out of hand. 
 A couple of weeks into April, we were running an activity on DNA extraction of strawberries. This is one of the more difficult activity for the small ones, who are usually the crowd at EMPower Pplace. Mind you, most of the kids that come to after school club are preschool to second grade. The DNA activity also requires patients, which we all hopefully get to learn throughout life.  As you may remember, being cooped up in school all day, doesn't make listening very easy. Our poor parents can probably attest to this claim. 
So, how do we make sure everyone receives a positive experience before heading home you ask? We’ll I have to be prepared and it helps to have my colleagues back me up when I’m struggling, which I was that day.  
DNA from strawberries? You mean you want to make Jam with second graders? So the process is, have the kids put previously frozen strawberries in a landfill bag. Ok, now, zip the plastic closed and mash up those berries with a solution of water, dish soap and a bit of salt. The kids love this part.  Next, you put the strawberries in a coffee filter and wait for the mixture to drip through to the bottom of a beaker. Ok, add isopropyl alcohol and wait. Essentially you are breaking down the strawberry to a more basic form. If you actually want to do this, you can find videos on YouTube for precise measurements. 
After a few cycles of kids extracting DNA, one of the children that had been assisting me, asked me a question that I wasn't ready for. She paused on her tenth extraction of the hour, while also helping other kids and exclaimed, “Are you a real scientist?” Some of the other kids around the table became apparently aware of the conversation and awaited my answer. Before I could even think of a response, that same second grader who asked the question said, “I think you are a scientist.” She smiled and went back to what she was doing. It's almost as if she could tell I was stressed that day and I needed a confidence boost. It reminded me, how a simple encouraging comment can mean so much. Sappy? I know right? I didn’t feel like a scientist, with my liberal arts degree and my zero hours of lab work. She reminded me that we can be whatever we want to be in life, that we just have to believe in ourselves and others. 
As much as I would like to say that I am serving this community with my forty hour weeks of service, I feel as though sometimes, I am the one being served. I look forward to Monday mornings, because I get to hang out with curious growing toddlers. Science Tuesdays, I get to hang out with Dr. Amanda. Wednesdays are easier to get through when I can conversate and receive life advice from mothers, post Tiny Tales. My colleagues are some of the sweetest and understanding people. Honestly, every day of the week has its appeal, sometimes it just takes a little reminder.   


Monday, April 8, 2019

A CONVERSATION WITH FORMER AMERICORPS DIRECTOR BY SABRINA QUIMBY


Service work is not for everyone, but for some it’s their calling. Bill is one of those people who was meant to help others and dedicate his life to it. We met for the first time at Serve Montana Symposium earlier in March and I was taken back by how laid back he was considering his resume. He talked more about other people than himself and he is quite humble for someone who served this country on a national level for over four years (along with lifelong experience in the field of service in general). Someone that has dedicated his whole life to public service. Someone who worked closely with Barack Obama and Joe Biden for years, people who are also advocates for doing national service pathways like AmeriCorps
(Picture from https://readingpartners.org/blog/obama-advocates-for-americorps-on-the-daily-show/)
After symposium was over I wanted to learn more about him beyond what was said in his talk and beyond what is on the old White House’s website:  https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/champions/service-and-social-innovators/william-c.-basl
 I wanted to know how a Rhode Island native, that participates in winter sports in my home state of Vermont, came to be the accomplished person he is today. So I reached out to my colleagues to get his contact information, sent him a message, and was shocked that he answered so quickly. Next thing I know we are on the phone chatting and networking. 
 When I asked him about how he became who is he is today, he never thought he would make it to such a high position and is grateful everyday for his experiences. He just took any opportunity he was shown and all of them built up to the biggest position of them all. While in his position he worked closely with the former president and vice president of the United States to strengthen AmeriCorps while helping give awards to veterans for their service. Throughout our conversation after that he was determined to help me be the most successful after this current service year and gave me so many helpful tips/resources to use. It was obvious how much he cares for service leaders and members as a whole even after leaving his larger position.
Bill retired from the position in 2016 and didn't want to fully end his career in public service so he continues his service at Washington Campus Compact daily along with volunteering weekly to help the homeless in Seattle. He has a lot of wisdom and I thought that I would share a few things that I learned from him:
1. Motivation is hard to measure, but the ability to to try new things is extensive
2. Being equal and being fair are two totally different things.
3. Never pass up on new opportunities; there is endless potential there.
4. The purpose of service is to understand the struggles of the community you are serving, not to try to solve everything. We get lost in trying to find solutions when we can just have compassion for people, giving them the hope for a better tomorrow while we support them.
 Also Fun Fact: Bill is a college basketball fan and is big in March Madness 
I will take Bill’s advice of, “Always Aim Higher” as I continue on in my service year and hope to be even achieve a fraction of what he’s done for our country.  Thank you Bill for your service.



Monday, March 25, 2019

ENGAGING THE DESIRE TO LEARN MORE BY HANNAH FERUS

Scientific magazines, documentaries, and science fiction have all been a weekly, if not daily, part of my life for as long as I can remember. Even then, I wasn’t sure until my second semester at college whether I was going to be able to pursue a STEM based degree. The self-doubt and uncertainty for if I was good enough to even try was off put in the end by the simple desire to learn more. And as I learn more about different forms of education, and have been working more and more with youth in the community, it is a topic that seems to come up weekly.

My motivation for moving to Montana and working through Montana Campus Compact was in part to learn if I wanted to pursue the path of becoming a teacher. Part of my service here in Butte, MT is to assist with an after school science program at M. Leary Elementary School. This program has offered me the insight and experience I sought, but it also has emphasized to me the importance of supporting the curiosity of the youth in all communities and a teacher/academic mentor’s ability to direct innate human curiosity into a desire to learn.

Human curiosity expresses itself in the students on a weekly basis. From going off-script while working with snap circuit boards to produce the same result in both more complicated or simpler ways, to making homemade thermometers and working with them to figure out if warmth or cold (and how to achieve those conditions to test) will make the red liquid move up or down the straw. The reasoning for why these experiments work the way they do is sometimes obvious for those of us who are older and know at least basic examples of liquid expansion (water to ice) or principles of force and air pressure (ever squeezed a juice pouch when you were younger to get the juice up the straw?). And even if in a group you are not able to fully explain these principles to every student, I have seen how even experiencing these phenomena in an academic setting and encouraging questions is enough to begin developing a desire to learn more.

It’s not learning the answers to every question that makes you learn the most in life, or become a brilliant academic, and yet the very principle of having the predetermined answer to every question is what we are increasingly judging students by. The desire to learn is a skill, a mindset that transfers across all subjects in life. So through personal, and now observation based, experience, I am left wondering what indeed are the best ways to approach the education of our country’s youth?
I believe that through the services we provide as AmeriCorps leaders that we can create a variety of safe and engaging spaces for students within a range of topics, and that this space should be not only to aid them in succeeding in the district and federally determined academic standards of education. Rather, if we make sure to implement the value of learning and provide experiences for them to develop a desire to learn more about any subject then we are better preparing them for any array of futures. 

Every set of community, school, and class dynamics will differ as greatly as an individual’s experiences and perspectives in life. There is no silver bullet to education, and any number of factors need to be considered when planning a course let alone a restructuring of the entire system. Besides social, political, and structural changes which would allow for the shifting of our entire education system. I have come to view our work as AmeriCorps members to be a very important one. The work we do is not always groundbreaking, but, as has been highlighted in recent weeks by various news articles and speakers at recent conferences, taking a year or two out of our life to aid dozens if not hundreds of students who cross through the threshold wherever we serve is something that does not go unnoticed in the larger scale of things. This leads me to two additional thoughts about our work in AmeriCorps. One, that the pure number of hours and range of locations that members serve at is something that in and of itself shows the breadth of possible good done by another under-paid and under-utilized sector of our society and economy. And two, that it is a grand shame that it is necessary for a small sub-sector of the government to attempt to remedy the larger inequities and failings of the government at large to support not just the broad sector of ‘social services’ but specifically the education systems which are the backbone to every aspect of our society since it is how we learn about the world, our country, our community, ourselves, and how to best support the very places we live. 


A desire to learn is innate in every human when we are born; we are blank slates, sponges, who observe and absorb everything in our environment. And yet we have managed to progress to a society where this is not acknowledged, where the growth of all our children is not emphasized. And furthermore, where knowledge is taken for granted and not emphasized at the level of the general population.

At a time when misinformation and snap decisions can have lasting impacts on larger communities than ever before, my service through AmeriCorps has shown me the importance of giving aid at an individual level, and how even students who are considered smart and don’t have issues at school aren’t given the space to develop further skills and instead stagnate. It is fairly well known that schools in this country are constrained by having to focus on the lowest performing students, at the consequence of having their schools lose funding and potentially being shut down. The education focused groups within AmeriCorps can work to relieve this pressure on districts by working in classrooms, creating and working at after school programs, but the numbers don’t add up to these efforts being the solution to the problem.

Thus the question remains, through all of our experiences serving in AmeriCorps, how can we take what we learn, what we see, and what local people and educators tell us and culminate it into real change? Is there, or could there be, a format for this work and experience to mean more? What will it take for our country and society to put the education, and therein personal and economic well being, of her citizens first?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

STARTING OVER BY ASHLEY HETTLER

Poster above my desk
Hanging above my desk is a poster that reads, “No hate, No fear, Refugees are welcome here”. Every time I look at it, I hear chanting in the streets and see thousands of people swarming Washington D.C., with their signs waving. Living in D.C. for 6 years was eye-opening. I was no stranger to protests, politics, and people marching for what they believe in. It’s inspiring, and exhausting. By late 2017, I knew it was time for me to leave D.C. and pursue a field I was passionate about. I had wanted to work for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) since graduating college, and Campus Compact had one opening to serve as a VISTA. I eagerly applied, had a few interviews, and 5 months later I found myself driving cross country with my mom and aunt to Missoula, Montana, to start a new career and a new life. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be the only one starting over.
Glacier National Park (in September!)


Settling into Montana was fast and furious. It was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The climate is really dry (hallelujah!), I live within a few hours of 2 incredible National Parks, my car got frozen shut in the midst of winter, and walking down the street one day, I had a man look at me, tip his cowboy hat, and say “Howdy!”. I had never seen snow-capped mountains before, and I’m still not entirely sure what kombucha is, or why lots of Montanans love it. I shake my head sometimes and smile at how far outside of my comfort zone I am, and how good that feels.

I started my AmeriCorps VISTA service in late July when the IRC office was in the middle of a refugee “surge”. In this case, we had about 70 individuals come to Missoula over the span of 3 months. I was thrown into the craziness immediately. Between attending meetings, learning the abbreviations and lingo associated with refugee resettlement, and getting comfortable showing up at a client’s house and telling a family - that doesn’t speak English - to get in my car to go to an appointment - it all had its challenges.

Serving at the IRC has taught me more than I hoped for. In the first few months of service, I drove a mom and her 3 daughters to a school enrollment meeting. Towards the end of the meeting, the mom found out that public school was free for all of her kids, and she started to cry. She couldn’t believe it. A young man from Congo asked me if I was married, and was shocked (his jaw actually dropped) to find out that I was 25, not married, and didn’t have kids. I drove another man to his job interview, and he was the only black man in the store. Customers stared at him the whole time. If I thought that moving to Montana was a culture shock for me, it is nothing compared to the transition refugees face when they land in Missoula wearing flip flops in the dead of winter.
My backyard on Christmas Day

The IRC is doing amazing work, both domestically and internationally. They help people, who were forced from their homes due to violence and threats, to safety in the United States. Missoula has been consistently active in bringing refugees to Montana, and helping them become involved in the community.

Because of this year, I now belong to the AmeriCorps community, the IRC organization, and the city of Missoula, and for that, I am eternally grateful. AmeriCorps was my excuse to leave D.C., but it also became the very reason to stay in Montana and continue this service.