Who are you and what are you doing here?

By Katie Elliot

S-LTA Katie Elliot
S-LTA Katie Elliot

Who are you and what are you doing here? This past week the faculty member who teaches the First-Year Writing section I am the Service-Learning Teaching Assistant for asked his students this question. Furthermore, Mark Edmundson asks all college students this question. Edmundson proclaims: “You can get a terrific education in America now—there are astonishing opportunities at almost every college—but the education will not be presented to you wrapped and bowed. To get it, you’ll need to struggle and strive, to be strong…” (2011). I would like to believe that in many ways I have struggled; struggled to stay awake on late nights of reading, struggled to write the perfect paper, struggled to figure out what I want to do. I can confidently say in some ways I have strived: I have taught deaf children in Zambia, sat beside an illiterate Libyan man in South Africa, played music with the inspirational students at the Carter School. Now, being strong…that is something that I am still working on, but Northeastern and all that is involved in this one institution is my personal trainer.

Katie’s First-Year Writing students on a walk to the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science, where they will be serving this semester.

When the faculty member of the First-Year Writing course asked the class, consisting of mostly freshmen, if they agree with Endmundson that “college is a means to an end” and “life is elsewhere” I listened intently to my students talk about the need to avoid simply going through the motions of classes, to challenge yourself. I raised my hand. Here is what I had to say, and here is how Service-Learning has shaped my college experience; how it has helped me understand who am I and what I am doing here.

Northeastern presents students with a unique environment. Because we have co-op, students here tend to understand that college is not just a means to an end, not just about getting good grades, but about getting experience. The prospect, hope, and dream of co-op make classes much more meaningful to students at Northeastern. It at least shifts the “elsewhere” that is life to searching for co-ops, getting experience by volunteering and joining clubs, rather than simply hanging with friends, ski trips, and intramural sports (not to say that these are nonexistent in our community). To be more specific, however, Service-Learning is, for so many students, their first foot in the door. My experience as a Service-Learning student at Boston Rescue Mission and then at United South End Settlements, were the first college experiences on my resume for my co-op applications.

The John D. O'Bryant School of Math and Science, where Katie's students will be serving this semester.
The John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, where Katie’s students will be serving this semester.

Service-Learning became more than just a bullet point on my resume for me. The focus of my education shifted from being only about me, doing the homework, writing the perfect papers, memorizing for tests. I told my students that nowadays I spend more time doing things to help them, to make their lives easier, their S-L experience richer, and their class more relevant than I do on my own homework. This is why I am constantly struggling to keep my eyes open when I am up late reading (or writing this blog post instead of doing homework). My education is now for other people. I work for the students and I love it. I love hearing about their breakthroughs in service, but also the challenges that they face and the ways they overcome it. I even love, sometimes, getting emails from students with questions and concerns, seeing my students on campus and being a familiar face. Yes, it is a lot of work and efforts sometimes seem futile. However, I believe that I have accepted and overcome Edmundson’s challenge. I took the present of a college education at Northeastern University and tore it open, in fact I am still opening that gift, finding the treasures and resources that Northeastern has. At the same time I am wrapping it and trying to re-gift it to my students, to the members of clubs I am involved in.

I have answered Edmundson’s question:

So, who am I and what am I doing here?

I am a Service-Learning Teaching Assistant and I am here to give students the gift of becoming a part of their community, learning from the community, and hopefully making an impact in their community.

I end with this: last year at the S-LEXPO a student wrote on a sticky note that they appreciate their community partner because “Now my love is bigger. It’s enough to embrace the whole world.” That is why I am doing this.

Katie is the Service-Learning Teaching Assistant for Sebastian Stockman’s First-Year Writing course. Previously, she served as an S-LTA for Human Services Professions and Global Experience, and she was a service-learning student in Human Services Professions and Early Childhood Intervention and Treatment.

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