Ernest Owens | Discovering our unsung leaders

The Ernest Opinion | Penn’s civic mentors provide a service we should all be doing

· September 27, 2012, 11:16 pm

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Ernest Owens
The Ernest Opinion

As freshmen candidates eagerly strut (and strip ) for votes on the final day of student government elections, another campaign is taking place on Locust Walk.

Usually as I race to class in the cranky hours of the morning, I tune out the slogans that students shout out as they flyer. However, one chant made me stop in my tracks:

“Do you want to mentor a child in West Philly? Just a few hours a week and you can help change a kid’s life!”

It’s easy to ignore statements like this one. But I didn’t. They got me.

The flyer was from CSSP.

Community School Student Partnerships recruits Penn students to mentor youths in West Philadelphia’s elementary and high schools. They support the community by building partnerships between students and schools to strengthen efficacy in the local public school system.

I grew up on the southwest side of Houston, Texas. My large high school was plagued by socioeconomic tensions similar to those that inner city public schools in West Philly face.

College students from Rice University would come to my school and chat with us on a weekly basis. We talked about academics, college and life in general.

Although I was only a young freshman, I aspired to be just like them. I wanted to go to a great college and my mentors encouraged me to do so. I am eternally grateful for this. Some of the advice they gave me continues to make an impact on my life today.

But when I made it to a great school, I didn’t immediately think to seek out opportunities to mentor kids. I ran for student government elections and joined the Undergraduate Assembly, thinking that I would make the most impact this way.

Over time, I got lost in the splendor of the Penn bubble and forgot about the outside world. Crazy midterms, club meetings and an active social life made it easy.

But then there were times when all I did was lounge around with friends and waste time on Facebook and Twitter. Couldn’t a few of those hours have been dedicated to helping others?

College senior Jessica Anderson has spent the last three years mentoring students through CSSP. “I fell in love with it,” she explained. Although she is a political science major looking to go to law school, Anderson said that her work as CSSP’s assistant director and as the site coordinator at Lea Elementary has given her more leadership experience than any student government position she could have campaigned for.

“We are not just helping Penn students, but also giving back to the community, helping train Quakers to be better mentors to others,” she added. “The kids deserve our time and support.”

So it isn’t enough for us to sit back in the lap of Ivy League luxury. As much as I’ve learned from being Representative Ernest, I recognize the importance of applying those skills to a greater cause.

CSSP provides a different kind of leadership opportunity for students — one that doesn’t just impact the campus but also the community. Civic mentors may not be campus celebrities but they are the true unsung leaders on campus.

In addition to volunteering at schools, they dedicate a generous amount of time to reach out and train other leaders. They represent the better face of Penn in the West Philly community, dispelling our image as a bunch a snobs afraid to branch out.

So I’ve joined the bandwagon — and you should too. Today, I’ll be heading to Lea for the first time to volunteer with their afterschool program and I don’t want to be on my own. That’s why I’m looking to freshmen candidates (who will have a lot more free time after they lose this week’s elections) and to upperclassmen trying to connect to a greater cause — here is your shot.

Skeptics need to stop hating and start motivating. There is a child waiting for each of us in West Philly. Let’s be there for them.

Ernest Owens is a College junior from Chicago, Ill. His email address is owense@sas.upenn.edu. “The Ernest Opinion” appears every Friday. Toss him a tweet @MrErnestOwens.

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