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College senior Kristen Jackson, training coordinator of Community School Student Partnerships, works on a project with local public school students.

Credit: Courtesy of Kristen Jackson

Three to four times a week, College senior Kristen Jackson takes a break from her life at Penn to interact with a completely different set of students — West Philadelphia public school students.

Many of the students Jackson mentors bounce from home to home, sleeping at different places every night. Others are more concerned with having food and a bed to sleep in than doing their homework.

“If I could count all the stories I’ve heard [as a member of CSSP], I’d be a really depressed person,” Jackson, the training coordinator of Community School Student Partnerships, said.

Every year, hundreds of students volunteer to the variety of community service initiatives offered through Civic House — from CSSP to the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project to Alternative Spring Break trips.

All of these initiatives are implemented from the perspective of an “institution of higher education,” Civic House Director David Grossman said, explaining that students not only aim to help the communities, but they also focus on what they’re learning from the experience. However, abroad and in Philadelphia, student volunteers question the tangible effects of their service.

A Learning Experience

Working on a Native American reservation in South Dakota, “I became exposed to a completely new lifestyle,” said College senior Michael Arnstein, co-director of Alternative Spring Breaks. Like Arnstein, who went on his first ASB trip to “explore a … unique community,” many students volunteer for community service to learn about different perspectives.

Other students volunteer for community service that will supplement their academic studies.

Because of her interest in international development, College freshman Abigail Koffler signed up for this year’s ASB trip to Nicaragua organized through Hillel.

On the trip, Penn students partnered with a nongovernment organization — Servicios Medicos Comunales — to help build a school that will be used for free adult education.

College junior Lori Weil, one of the leaders of the trip, explained that students also had the opportunity to learn about the politics and culture of Nicaragua from guest speakers who spoke throughout the week.

“There’s a lot of value in talking to people who live a very different life,” Koffler agreed.

For College and Wharton sophomore Yair Schiff, going on this trip last year exposed him to the “poverty prevalent in Nicaragua.”

“It is something that you are aware of, but seeing it in person makes that awareness more profound,” he said.

One particularly memorable day was when the students met girls from one of the NGO’s shelters.

“The 13-and 15-year-olds each had babies from rape [by] a family member or neighbor,” College sophomore Danielle Bernstein said. “I have this vivid image of the 13-year-old breast feeding her child.”

For the students, these interactions with the natives were eye-opening experiences.

“I carry this trip with me as it has sparked a genuine interest in the developing world,” Schiff said.

Grossman explained that this type of cultural exchange is one of the aims of Civic House initiatives.

Students are “communicating with and listening to the folks with whom they’re working,” he explained. “It’s not a one-dimensional relationship where we’re just providing service.”

Into West Philadelphia

Although interest is very high among students for ASB trips, there is an even greater number of Penn students involved in service closer to home in West Philadelphia.

“At the core, all of the four dozen Civic House programs are addressing a community-defined need,” Grossman said.

Living in West Philadelphia provides Penn students the unique opportunity of interacting directly with disadvantaged children in local schools.

Over 400 students volunteer for CSSP, which operates recess, school day, after school and evening programs at six West Philadelphia public schools.

Other groups, such as the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, aim to provide more academic support. WPTP has more than 300 students volunteering for one-on-one tutoring sessions in seven elementary, middle and high schools.

Most WPTP tutors, who volunteer for one hour per week, do see improvement in their students, WPTP Board Member and College sophomore Raphael Pransky said.

College senior Eleanor Geise, who is in her seventh semester as a WPTP tutor, said her experience as a tutor has depended upon the school where she is working.

Some schools are good at giving the students assignments that tutors can help with, Geise said, adding, “other schools were more disorganized, and I didn’t really feel like I helped that much.”

Struggle to Make a Difference

Many Civic House volunteers — both in West Philadelphia and abroad — experience frustrations when they fail to see their service make a tangible difference.

On the trip to Nicaragua, the trip organizers “wanted us to experience that this one trip could not solve the endemic and deeply rooted poverty in Nicaragua,” Schiff said, so they “did not provide us with a large workload, and often on the work site we felt ineffective, and at times like we were in the way.”

“I wish that we could have utilized our work time more efficiently,” he added.

Hillel staff member Debbie Yunker, who oversaw the trip, explained that, “Students engaged in a healthy struggle, realizing that they were not as skilled in the work we were doing as their Nicaraguan counterparts.”

In West Philadelphia, tutors and mentors also struggle to measure tangible outcomes of their service.

When assigned tutees who are on the border of proficiency in reading or math, it is easier to make a difference, Geise explained, but tutors assigned to students well below the expected reading or math levels find it harder to make a difference.

One WPTP volunteer — who wished to remain anonymous so as not to insult the program’s leaders — feels they don’t visit the schools frequently enough to really help the students.

“Sometimes they don’t give us real tasks to help with,” the College freshman said. “I think they could make better use of us while we’re there.”

To improve, there could be better communication between WPTP organizers and the school itself, Geise said. Or teachers can give students assignments that will better utilize the help of the tutors.

In addition, student volunteers would like to see more of their peers join in their service.

“I think a lot of students live in the Penn bubble and don’t go out and help,” Geise said.

A passion for community service is not a “shared sentiment across campus,” Jackson agreed.

While Grossman said that he’s been “very impressed with Penn students’ involvement” in community service, he added that “there’s always room for improvement in numbers.”

For students who do volunteer, Grossman would like to see students thinking more deeply about how they do their community service, and he strives for “more education and reflection outside the programs.”

“Our tutors can always have more training,” he added.

Arnstein echoed this sentiment, saying that he has encouraged groups to come together to discuss what they’ve learned on their ASB trips after they returned to Penn.

Overall, it’s “very difficult to measure the difference” that volunteers are making, Jackson said. “But I do know that the kids are thrilled when the mentors come in. It gives them something to look forward to.”

With every visit, Jackson struggles to accept the fact that there are certain things she cannot change for her students, like their family lives.

“I cannot make the difference I would like to,” she added. “Instead I make the difference that I can.”

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