There’s nothing we love more than celebrating the achievements of NYU students, whether in the classroom or lab, on stage or screen, or out on the field or court.
But there’s one set of accolades we’re especially proud of these days—those recognizing our students for their meaningful work in the community. In January, NYU was awarded the Community Engagement Classification by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in recognition of the strong role civic engagement plays in university life here. Last year, for the sixth time, NYU also received the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll with Distinction from the Corporation for National and Community Service. And we celebrated our 18th year as the largest America Reads/America Counts program in the country—with 800 students providing 10 to 12 hours of weekly tutoring in 70 NYC public schools.
In total, more than 13,000 NYU students performed over 1.3 million hours of service in 2014. For this series, NYU Stories spoke with just a handful of them—to find out what motivates our star students to give back, and what they’ve learned from their experiences working in the community. And we couldn't help but feel inspired.
Name: Cheryl Tang
Works for: America Reads
Childhood challenges: I didn't go to preschool, and now I see the difference that makes. The kids who go to preschool already know their ABCs when they get to kindergarten. I went to kindergarten not knowing any English because my parents spoke Chinese to me at home, and that was a lot harder, I think, then for kids now. I work right now in a predominantly Chinese school right now where there are a lot of efforts to make sure these kids aren't behind because their parents don't know English. They are fine. They're on track.
The next adventure: I had started at NYU as a pre-med student with an intended biology major, but then I really liked teaching. I'm graduating in May, and I have a job offer for next school year teaching for Teach for America. America Reads changed the way I see the world, and it changed what I thought I wanted to be.
Being the change: America Reads has helped me realize that there’s much more interaction between politics and my own life than I previously thought. I realized I can make a difference, I just need to work at it. Before that, I was just kind of in my own world. I’ve seen how income inequality affects education, and how it’s getting worse in so many communities, which is why I decided to apply for Teach for America.
Name: Lizzy Weber
Major: journalism and politics
Works for: Jumpstart
The “aha” moment: One day, after I became a team leader, I was leading a circle time and it was just sort of out of control—kids were all over the place. Then I leaned in and whispered and slowly got all of their attention. I had 22 four-year-olds all focused on me, and I thought, I can do this. I could handle doing this every day.
Slight change of plan: When I was first thrown into the classroom, it was kind of sink or swim. I think I swam pretty well. Now, though my majors are still journalism and politics, I’m applying to grad schools early childhood education. So this is pretty much what I’m going to do with my life—teach for real.
Life experience: I’m the oldest of 19 grandchildren, so I’m used to having children underfoot. Now when I babysit, I’ll use the Jumpstart songs and games. My little cousin Isaac has gotten really fond of “Five Little Ducks,” which is stuck in my head all the time.
Not just a job: Our Jumpstart coordinator Rachel DuBois is always saying that Jumpstart isn’t just a job—it’s a lifestyle. That’s really true. It really can become a sort of community and—well, I hesitate to use the word “family,” but that’s sort of what it is. A lot of my best friends are people I've gone through Jumpstart with. I live with someone who I've known through Jumpstart for four years. It's a way to find community—to find people who think like you in a big, diverse school like NYU.
Name: Krystal McLeod, 2015 Truman Scholar, 2014 Dalai Lama Fellow, and recipient of a 2014 Gallatin Human Rights Fellowship
Founded: My Right to Learn, a human rights-based education program geared toward inner city minority youth, with a focus on literacy and college readiness
Making a vow: I grew up in a low-income, single-parent household, and my mom adopted six kids. I watched a lot of my brothers and sisters come out of our local public school system functionally illiterate, and I was really broken by that injustice. I said that if I ever came to a place in my life where I was able to do something about it, I would. I know I can’t change the world alone, but I hope my little effort will inspire others to do the same and really tackle the issues in educational equity that we have in the United States.
The teacher as listener: I don't feel like in my educational experience, I really had a say in my learning. It was always the instructor telling you what is relevant to you—which isn't fair. So with My Right to Learn we really urged our students to tell us what they thought would help them learn better, and if they were up for the challenge, to tell us what they wanted to read or where they wanted to have class. Our classes were My Right to Truth, My Rights, My Right to Literacy, and My Right to a College Education. In My Rights we gave them the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but we also talked about issues like stop and frisk, which a lot of them knew a lot about, growing up in low income communities. We ended up having a debate that everyone participated in, even the 12-year-olds. They weren’t afraid to say how they felt and they were excited to be treated like older students, learning to use reference materials. It was really exciting.
A sense of responsibility: I was always frustrated growing up because we never had enough money, and I couldn’t get the attention I needed because my siblings had special needs. I realized that the life I was living wasn’t really life, but more like day-to-day survival. I’d run up to my mom all the time and say, like, “I think I’m going to change our circumstances.” And she’d grab my hand and say, “If you ever make it out of this situation, out of poverty, out of this household, I just want you to remember one thing. You have to pull a fallen brother or sister up with you. Because success is nothing if it’s only profiting one.” When I got to NYU and saw all the opportunities here, I thought, “Shoot, I have a chance to exactly what my mom said.”
Finding a path: I came into NYU lost. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. That someone who was so confused, so lost, and who didn’t have a parent who could give me the tangible tools that are needed in college is now excelling, getting fellowships, and being able to do exactly what I love is because of the support I’ve had from so many people and offices in this university. I wasn't this person three years ago. There’s that saying "it takes a village to raise a child." I'm so happy that I've been able to find a village here at NYU.
Name: Kim Leung
Studying: medical ethics (graduate level)
Works for: Alternative Breaks
The best medicine: My senior year, I went to West Virginia to serve at the Gesundheit! Institute founded by Patch Adams. While t here, volunteers go to local hospitals dressed as clowns, which sounds very silly, but the philosophy behind it is that it breaks the ice very quickly, and people instantly open up to you. Because you look ridiculous. I remember talking to one gentleman in a wheelchair, who was watching TV and not really responding to me. I thought maybe he couldn’t talk. I thought I hadn’t gotten through to him at all, and then just as I was about to walk away, he turned to me and said, “Thank you, this was really nice.” It was a moment of human connection—not that I changed his life forever, just that I made his day a little bit better.
Expanding the circle: My dad always was a very compassionate person. If there was a family member or friend in need, no matter how close or distant they were, he would always step up. I’d always wonder, if we weren’t so close to them, why he would bother devoting so much time, money and resources toward helping this individual. His answer? “They’re family.” That’s it—no other explanation needed. I thought, why stop at family? Why not show compassion toward everyone?
A team effort: Alternative breaks is 99% student-run—there’s a grad adviser, and ten committee members. As a team we create a kind of skeleton for what an alternative break trip looks like. Each year we send multiple trips—this year it’s 21. But where the magic happens with Alternative Breaks is with the site leaders—they are the muscle of the whole operation. Each trip usually as 12-14 people, two of whom are site leaders. They are students as well, they’re the ones who interview the participants, and lead weekly meetings. This is a yearlong commitment—it’s not just about going to do service for one week and never seeing each other again. A bunch of people working together is always going to be better than the smartest person working alone.
Leaving room for serendipity: I think the best things in life are the things that take you by surprise. I didn't go on my first AB trip until my senior year of undergrad. I never saw community service as being a big part of my life, but one day it just clicked. It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and it’s allowed me to build all kinds of skills and meet amazing individuals.
Name: Esther Kim
Studying: childhood and special education (master's student)
Works for: America Reads
The “aha” moment: I was studying psychology, but it was America Reads that made me want to pursue education. It was junior year, and I thought, Wow, I really like this school environment. You hear a lot of negative things about public schools, but I’m also seeing a lot of positives here.
Practice makes perfect: One student was struggling a lot—she had a speech and language disorder, and at the start of the year she was frustrated that her peers were really starting to read, while she was left behind. But then, over the course of the semester, we worked on one of those simple books with one or two words on each page until she was finally able to get through it herself. She was so proud. That was really rewarding.
Unsung heroes: There’s a lot of frustration around the politics behind public education, and it can be troubling to see students who aren’t receiving the services that they need. But there’s also so much that the teachers and the community are doing without being acknowledged or even compensated for it. Within the classroom, there’s a lot going on that’s not always recorded or documented or even noticed outside.
What keeps you coming back: Working one-on-one, you get to see just how different each student is. It’s interesting to see that they have their own personality and their own characteristics even when they’re as young as five or six. Each one has so much to offer.
Name: Katie Millay
Major: Early childhood education
Works for: Jumpstart
Finding a calling: I started out in NYU’s liberal studies program, not sure what I wanted to do. Then I found I enjoyed all the work for Jumpstart more than anything I was studying in my classes. I thought, I should probably follow that feeling, if I actually like reading kids’ books in advance and planning ways to make all the activities interesting for these preschool students. I loved being in the classroom, and had a gut feeling that I wanted to continue doing that. That’s how I ended up in the early childhood program here.
A strong foundation: One of my early memories is of sitting in my car with my dad during hunting season. We were in the car on the edge of one of my grandfather’s fields, and my dad—already in his full camo and fluorescent orange outfit, with his bow in the trunk—is sitting in the driver’s seat reading to me from Chronicles of Narnia. That seemed completely normal to me, to have books everywhere all the time. It’s another reason I was drawn to Jumpstart—I know that the group that we work with probably don't have the same experiences with early literacy that I had with my parents, so it's nice that we can bring the books to them.
If you could change one thing: I think there's not enough play in early childhood now, partly because of the big push toward standardized testing, and partly because it’s hard for outsiders to see how play can be so educational. But but it's an amazing builder of language and social skills, which at this age are just as important as being able to read and write your name, or being able to wait and take your turn. It's very hard to teach that through academics alone. So if I were queen for a day, I would put so much more play in everything—even for third and fourth graders, who need to get outside and burn off energy.
Striking a balance: You need a break from classes, from studying constantly—even if it’s just going for a run or taking time at the gym. Something that isn’t just school all the time. But a program like Jumpstart adds extra value in that you can see how your work affects other people—especially because we work with kids for a full year, and you can see the difference between the first few session and the last ones. You’re bringing them things they don’t have, and seeing them get excited about reading. It brings you a kind of joy that can otherwise be hard to find in college as you try to figure out what you want to do. Even if you have four bad days for one good day, that one good day makes up for all the bad ones before it. I like to say that these kids will make you feel like a superhero. You're the highlight of their week, because they're four and they're new to school, and when you walk into the room they say, "Jumpstart is here! It's going to be awesome!
Name: Andy C. Ng, Reynolds Changemaker Challenge winner and 2013 Dalai Lama Fellow
Major: English literature, with minors in Urban Education Studies and Social Entrepreneurship
Co-founded: Student to Student, a program to coach underserved middle school students through the process of taking the SHSAT entrance test for competitive NYC high schools
Taking a leap: At the time I applied to the Reynolds Changemaker Challenge with the idea for Student to Student, I was an English major—I had no business background at all, and “social entrepreneurship” was then just a buzzword to me. I just knew that the SHSAT test was a huge barrier for low-income students of color, and I was very, very passionate about education. When I tell people I study English, they ask if I’m going to be a teacher or a writer. Those are still possibilities, but I’ve found that the skills that I’ve gained from my studies can be applied in all kinds of ways. The experience of starting my own program helped me land an internship at JP Morgan, even though I’m not a finance person. And in the interviews for a position I recently accepted at Google, I talked about how starting that program really shaped my life.
The “aha” moment: During the first week of one of the courses I taught with Student to Student, I asked my students what they wanted to be when they grew up. After class, one of them came up to me and said, “I’ve never had a teacher ask me that before.” These kids were all twelve and thirteen—they had just finished the seventh grade—and at first it made me very sad to hear that. But then it was also nice that students had the courage to come and tell me those things, and afterwards we’d have discussions where students said, “I want to dig more, I want to do research, I want to see what the possibilities are for me.” That one little bit of conversation inspired them to keep going, to keep sharing their ideas.
Forging a path: I read a sad statistic that less than half the kids in my high school graduate in four years, and when I go back home I realize that a lot of the kids I graduated with are still there because they didn’t pursue higher education. But I was fortunate to graduate and come to NYU. When I see students struggling in schools where they aren’t getting the attention they deserve, I feel that I used to be in their place, so I know they can rise above that. If I could do it, they can do it—they just need the right opportunity.
Paying it forward: I’m working with the Leadership Initiative to build the civic engagement community here at NYU. We have such a talented student body, and New York City is so rich with opportunities for students. It’s easy to stay inside the NYU bubble, but there are 5 boroughs in the city—there’s a lot of need out there. I think that it would be silly to walk away from an opportunity to lend a helping hand or just to learn more about what’s out there. You learn a lot, and it will really pay dividends for you in the future.
Name: Ann Zhou
Major: economics and mathematics
Works for: Jumpstart
The “aha!” moment:
There’s one child in my classroom who did not talk at all. She is an English-language learner and I think she just didn’t understand what we were asking her. Then, two sessions ago, she answered a question in circle time—and that was the moment when I thought, She’s getting it. She’s learning her name. She’s getting the story that we’re reading. That was really rewarding.
A change in perspective:
With Jumpstart we work primarily on the Lower East Side, and I realize that these kids are sometimes not as fortunate as I was, looking back on my own life. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood were we didn’t have to worry about not having supplies in the classroom and things like that. It gives you a new perspective on current politics—I have a management and public policy minor—and how they affect what kids will learn on a given day. I really wish there really were equal opportunities for all kids, because we say that a lot, but I don’t really think it’s true. You shouldn’t have fewer opportunities just because of the family or the place you were born into.
Coming full circle:
For Jumpstart I help translate a bunch of things from English into Mandarin—little notes to parents about which books a student enjoyed, or materials for our “Jumpstart for a Day” festival. I grew up in Mountainview, California, but I was born in Shanghai—so some of the English language struggles these families are experiencing I know very well.