One Penn student wants to empower Philadelphia’s high schoolers.

College junior Katherine Mateo co-founded Global Youth United when she was only a sophomore at Central High School in Philadelphia. Today, the organization sends volunteers to coach high schoolers on creating social change.

Mateo was inspired by Leonard Finkelstein’s visit to her school when he asked the audience what they felt the world’s top ten issues are. Mateo teamed up with Finkelstein to found GYU. He envisioned further discussion on social issues in schools, while she designed the program itself.

The goal of GYU has shifted over the years. “When it started, it was ‘Let’s talk about things that are going on right now, let’s be active citizens,’” she said. “We didn’t have any classes in which we actively read the newspaper.”

When Mateo arrived at Penn, the organization transitioned to a mentorship model. It now focuses on helping students identify an issue they care about, set goals that are measurable and attainable and enact a plan to accomplish those goals.

This shift has expanded GYU’s role to now also focus on “developing the skills - such as leadership, management, problem solving and public speaking - students need to have to create social change,” Mateo said.

GYU sends Penn students to local high schools, where they mentor students who are trying to create change in their community.

Mateo said that each mentor commits much more than the hours each week that they spend at the high school. Mentors also need to make lesson plans, attend general body meetings and meet with other mentors to ensure the GYU curriculum is engaging.

The mentors’ high level of commitment definitely pays off, according to Mateo. The projects started by the GYU high school students have already made a big impact.

A group of Central High School students worked with the issue of education through GYU. After 24 schools in Philadelphia shut down, the students “held a forum between administrators, students, teachers and parents to speak in an open, non-condemning way about the issues that were going on,” Mateo said.

They did not stop when the school year ended and continued promoting their message last summer by going to Harrisburg to lobby for education reform. Now, GYU is connecting the students with Penn’s Weigle Information Commons to make a documentary about education reform.

“This is really what GYU is about now - connecting civically engaged high school students with the resources we have here at Penn,” Mateo said. She believes that GYU’s future success is based on the “extent that the organization can be ingrained within the University.”

Looking forward, Mateo sees GYU’s main goal as sustainability. She is committed to “always being there to make GYU the best that it can be.”

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