When it comes to a college education, many people believe a “good one” encompasses knowledgeable professors, academic resources, professional resources and some worthwhile extracurricular activities, like sports or volunteering, which help to provide meaningful and useful skills. Other components, like mental health services and organizations that appeal to students’ interests, also go into shaping a great college experience.
Personally, I cannot picture what my education would have been like without volunteering at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in Ithaca. Specifically, the opportunity to be involved with its Human Rights Education Partnership, a dual reading initiative and social justice awareness project that joined together BJM, Ithaca College, Cornell University and the Ithaca community, was invaluable.
Because I’m an English education major and a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar, there was nothing about the project that I didn’t love. The initiative began two years ago, established largely by several Ithaca College students; Nia Makepeace, a psychologist and peace and conflict resolution specialist at BJM, as well as an occasional professor at the college; the now-retired Jeff Claus of the education department; and a grant from the Ithaca community.
The project posed serious questions about social inequalities and social justice while getting students excited to read. It explored Linda Sue Park’s novel “A Long Walk to Water,” which focuses on both the severe water scarcity in Sudan and the circumstances that lead to one of the book’s protagonists, Salva Dut, becoming one of the “Lost Boys” of the country. Last year, the project used William Kamkwamba’s autobiography, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” as its focus.
Though I could talk endlessly about the project from a literary, social justice or pedagogical perspective, what’s most important to me, at this point in my career as a college student, is none of the above. From a technical standpoint, yes, the involvement looks nice on a resume, but that’s not a reason why people should get involved with anything. What we learn in our involvements is what matters, and this project taught me a lot.
The project offered professional skill-building in a way other volunteering opportunities usually don’t. Because I got to work with students very closely throughout the entire process — beginning with their reading of the text, then the related art and other activities and finally follow-up conversations — I developed a true understanding about their thoughts and capabilities. Most kids called the text’s content “harsh” and “deep,” and they seriously considered human rights issues of such magnitude as warfare and its impacts, resource scarcity, lack of access to education and more. It was a profound moment of realization for me about their ability to handle serious themes. Watching program coordinators like Makepeace foster school-wide fundraising efforts to build wells in Sudan and reach out to all types of students with reading, writing, drawing and other approaches, gave me a new appreciation for what education looks like when done correctly.
Even though I plan to teach older kids, it was truly inspiring to see literature put to such good use and to watch professionals plan out amazing lessons that made children excited about learning. I’ll certainly never again underestimate students’ abilities to handle complex material.
Frankly, I can’t imagine going through college and not having at least one involvement like this project. Some things simply can’t be taught by a professor or learned on a campus that are just as important to a good education. For me, the Human Rights Education Partnership was definitely a source for many of them.