When Elon University sophomore Rachel Gilman began her teaching practicum at Grove Park Elementary School, she felt as if nothing could have prepared her for the drastic differences between the lifestyles students led and the one she was accustomed to.
“From the first time I set foot in the school, I was in culture shock,” Gilman said. “But it was neat to see how even though the students had so much less than what I was used to, they were all still just kids.”
In an effort to take action against the poverty she saw in the classroom, Gilman began contributing to Grove Park’s Backpack Friday program, which is a weekly effort to provide backpacks filled with food to students who may not otherwise get enough to eat over the weekend.
Like Gilman, students in courses taught by Cherrel Miller-Dyce, professor of education, often find the importance of civic engagement is one of the most valuable lessons they receive.
Sophomore Ciera Martinez has also contributed to Grove Park food drives, and recently selected the cause as her community service project for Alpha Kappa Alpha’s programming week.
Martinez encouraged students to bring food to the Alpha Kappa Alpha house and to events hosted by the sorority, which she later delivered to the Grove Park Baptist Church.
“I just think that people who might have more than others should help out those who have less,” Martinez said. “I just feel like you shouldn’t let people suffer from not having enough food to eat when you can do something about it.”
By participating in service activities at Grove Park Elementary School, many Elon University students are able to put what they have learned into action.
Miller-Dyce’s students are required to complete a 30-hour practicum at Grove Park, a Title I school with many students qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches.
After completing the practicum, students frequently contact Miller-Dyce to discuss additional opportunities for service at Grove Park, she said.
“When our students get there, they see that it is a Title I school, but these children are bright,” Miller-Dyce said. “These children are really smart, and this school is a wonderful place to really get involved.”
In class, Miller-Dyce said she encourages her students to examine the ways poverty affects education and encourages them to think about ways they can help under-resourced schools.
“They learn the importance of thinking about the world beyond themselves,” Miller-Dyce said. “They learn the importance of Elon’s role within the community.”
At Grove Park, students are able to see first-hand the effects of poverty they have talked about in the classroom.
“Working at Grove Park in conjunction with taking my class, students begin to develop an advocacy lens,” Miller-Dyce said. “They see the connection between the school and the lessons they’ve received in the classroom. Some sort of transition begins to take place for them.”
Gilman completed her practicum during the Winter Term 2012, and said she felt Grove Park introduced her to a part of her community she wouldn’t have otherwise known.
Shortly after beginning her practicum at Grove Park, Gilman learned that nearly half of the students in her class were relying on weekly food donations.
“It just didn’t seem right that kids would ever have to go hungry, or especially that that could be a reason for students not to succeed in school,” Gilman said.
The following semester, Gilman teamed up with the Service Learning Community and several other education students to organize a food drive, and placed collection boxes in Mooney and the Kernodle Center.
Gilman then delivered the food to Grove Park Baptist Church to be packed and delivered to students during Backpack Friday.
“We ended up getting two car loads full of food, and it was a great feeling to unload them at the church,” Gilman said.
Martinez advertised the food drive using fliers and social media. She plans to continue coordinating donations, and hopes, in the future, there will be more widespread participation from students outside the education major.
“I know people can donate,” she said. “But it’s sometimes hard to get them to if they haven’t volunteered at the school.”
In addition to providing donations, many at Elon hope to provide Grove Park students with an understanding of the value of academics. Last semester, a group of Grove Park fifth graders were given an opportunity to tour Elon’s campus and interact with faculty and students across the university.
“They were able to sit in on a class,” said Miller-Dyce. “They sat down in the class with Elon students, and they began to answer questions. It was so amazing to see them interact with Elon students and see the Elon students begin to interact with them.”
The goal of the Elon visit was to help the Grove Park students understand the importance of continuing their education, and be able to picture themselves as having successful futures, according to Miller-Dyce.
Grove Park social worker Amber Doby also said she feels that one of the most important aspects of the relationship is introducing young students to the possibility of college.
“A lot of our students don’t have parents who went to college, and sometimes their parents didn’t graduate high school,” Doby said. “The Elon students complete hours here and it exposes our kids to college students.”
The visit to Elon made a lasting impact on many Grove Park students, according to Doby.
“They enjoyed seeing the campus and taking the tour,” she said. “One of the kid’s moms told me her son has not stopped talking about going to college since, and he had never mentioned it before the visit.”
Elon’s relationship with Grove Park is not the only service learning partnership the university supports. Several other service learning programs exist on campus to promote civic engagement intiatives.
Elon encourages civic engagement not only to benefit the community, but to benefit students as well, according to Mary Morrison, director of the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement.
“I think it’s part of what it means to get a well rounded education,” Morrison said. “Many students report that they find it rewarding and grounding to volunteer in the community.”
The Get on The Bus program provides students with transportation to four different off-campus service locations, and is intended to introduce students to Elon’s most frequented community partners, according to Morrison.
Though it may provide an introductory experience, the program aims to foster an interest in continued dedication to the community.
“I think it’s a great way for Elon students to understand the community in which they live for four years,” Morrison said.