KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Breaking up arguments over playground equipment and cleaning up juice box spills isn’t how most college students spend their free time. But Western Michigan University business student Sam McGrath isn’t like most. I loved getting a chance to work with kids,” says McGrath, an honors student from Canton majoring in food and consumer package goods marketing, leadership, and business strategy. She just completed a business ethics and sustainability course, which requires students to complete 15 hours of community service with an organization in southwest Michigan and reflect on how the experience applies to their future careers.
Over a dozen community partners met with students at the beginning of the semester, offering various experiences in everything from senior living communities to fire stations. McGrath is passionate about reading and writing, so when choosing an organization to work with, she immediately gravitated toward Reading and Write Kalamazoo. The nonprofit “exists to celebrate and amplify youth voices through the cultivation of reading and writing skills,” according to its website. We are extremely grateful for our partnership with the WMU Service Learning program,” says Kai Harris, volunteer coordinator for RAWK. “Put, having volunteers like Sam means we can do what we do.
A Learning Experience
The chance to help kids develop writing skills got McGrath excited about her service-learning project. I love hearing about people’s stories. I love that creative aspect,” says McGrath. Still, going from a college classroom to a room packed with energized kids is a culture shock. You have to approach communication differently because the kids have shorter attention spans and don’t always understand everything you’re saying, so I did a lot of figuring that out the first couple of weeks,” says McGrath.
While it doesn’t directly fit with her career goals, McGrath says she learned a lot from the elementary students she worked with within the after-school program at Kalamazoo’s Lincoln International Studies School. She coordinated snacks and recreation as well as helped students with schoolwork. A lot of the students just wanted to be heard. They just wanted to know that you cared about them,” McGrath says. “I think that’s a transferable skill wherever you go, to make your employees or co-workers feel they’re part of something.
The skills youth take away also stretch beyond the classroom.
While our programs are intended to help youth build their literacy skills through one-on-one tutoring with our student volunteers, the impact our volunteers have on students goes beyond reading and writing,” says Jason Conde, RAWK’s director of education. “During the time our youth spend with student volunteers, they develop their confidence as readers and writers, understand the importance of their voices and stories, and learn problem-solving, social-emotional, and behavioral management skills.
Building the Future
McGrath and other student volunteers also give the kids a glimpse at what their future could hold.
It’s extraordinary for our students who get to work one-on-one with WMU volunteers because they get help with reading, writing, and homework, and they also get to ask about what it’s like to be a college student,” says Conde. Because we serve at-risk, low-income, and vulnerable communities, this might be the only opportunity for our youth to engage with college students. Many of the students RAWK works with are eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise, covering up to 100% of tuition to Michigan colleges and universities for Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates.
They see WMU students who look like them, who they can relate to, and who show genuine interest in them,” says Harris. “This is vital in helping nurture the confidence and drive in a young KPS student. There were so many moments of joy where the students shared a sense of accomplishment,” says McGrath. “They were timid or anxious the first time I met with them, and by the time I left, they were comfortable sharing things they wouldn’t have before. The growth I saw within them is something I enjoyed.