Monday, March 21, 2011

Taking a break to make a difference

Published in The State News on March 13, 2011

For a long time I’ve considered myself a pessimist or cynic — capable of seeing the problems in life and providing negative criticism, but struggling with finding real solutions.

When it comes to educational reform and providing effective education for all public school students in the U.S. — specifically low-income students in poor schools — it’s easy to point out what’s wrong, but difficult to figure out exactly how to fix it.

Even when solutions are proposed, it’s much easier to doubt their effectiveness and question results than actually try them out.

During spring break, I had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles with MSU Hillel (alongside Hillel groups from other universities across Michigan and the U.S.) to volunteer in low-income elementary schools in a partnership with City Year’s Los Angeles Service Corps and Care Force.

During the program, I was able to get first-hand experience with a few potential solutions to education problems. My pessimistic ideology began to crack.

My fellow volunteers and I spent our mornings working on construction and painting projects to improve and beautify the schools. We spent our afternoons hanging out with at-risk students at another elementary school.

We organized pickup games of soccer, kickball and four square.

We tutored them in math and spelling while giving them someone to talk to as well as encouraged them to believe in both themselves and education.

Group discussions and guest speakers were interspersed throughout the week to keep us thinking about the effectiveness of our work as well as various perspectives on the problems facing American public schools.

A quick glance at the issue of effective public education allows us to conclude there usually isn’t enough money for each student, that their lives at home might be unstable and their parents or social environments are unsupportive of educational achievement.

The solutions to these problems usually either are unrealistic or unproven, and as one of the speakers during our program was keen to point out, there is no “silver bullet” to cure all education ills.

At the beginning of the trip, I doubted our work truly had value. However, the more I interacted with the kids, the more I came to see what I was doing really did have an effect.

The kids at the first school always enthusiastically ran up to us, asking what we were doing. They were excited to have us there, building colorful picnic tables, painting murals on the walls and simply chatting about what was going on in their lives. At our afternoon sessions, things ran deeper than just a kickball game — we came to know and care for the kids in just three days’ time.

After our first day working on the playground, I had met three amazing students whom I couldn’t wait to come back to see the next day.

One wanted to be a veterinarian; one a soccer player and another simply said he wanted to be smart like us.

When our time with them ended each day, they would breathlessly ask us if we were coming back the next day to play and talk again. They loved having us there, and we loved being there.

It was heartbreaking to tell them on our final day that we weren’t coming back. It was in their sadness at seeing us go that I truly understood how much of an effect our short time had on them.

Our brief sessions of individual interaction and encouragement had made some kind of positive impression on these kids and it could be seen in their eyes.

I don’t think this kind of personal investment by well-intentioned volunteers is the one and only solution to solving the issue of underachievement in low-income schools.

But my amazing trip showed me I am very capable of making even the slightest difference if only I am willing to sacrifice some of my time and donate it to helping those who are less fortunate than me.

It was a positive lesson that I will not soon forget.

-Matt Korovesis

Michigan State University

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