In an airy room of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, Caylen Bryant ’17 calmly walks to a small wooden podium in front of an audience composed of fellow students, family and friends, and members of the campus and Oberlin communities. She smiles, takes a breath, and then slumps over the podium, sprawling her arms over its edges and groaning loudly.
Bryant, an Africana studies and jazz bass performance double-degree student, is re-enacting a scene from earlier this summer. She had served as a president’s public service fellow (PPSF) for the FireFish Arts Camp, a visual arts training program for Lorain youth ages 14-22 that provides creative arts experiences while developing skills for the workplace and success in higher education. A guest speaker had been invited to instruct campers, but they were disinterested and defiant. Their body language was closed off, and their melodramatic sighs (not to mention the music playing from the headphones many had snuck into their ears) were highly audible.
Helping young adults understand the importance of showing (and thereby receiving) respect in professional and academic settings was just one goal of many that Bryant and peer 2015 PPSF fellows Aaron Appel ’16, Rewa Bush ’16, and Lillian White ’16 set out to achieve this summer.
The 11-week PPSF program provides funding for students to work full time with a local nonprofit or public sector agency on intensive service projects that engage and empower area teens and young adults. The program is directed by Tania Boster of the Bonner Center for Service and Learning (BCSL) and is made possible with funding from the Office of the President.
“President Krislov started PPSF in response to a community-expressed need for support of free summer programming that engages local teens through leadership development, the arts, and ecological and economic sustainability,” Boster says. “At the same time, students had been asking for funded opportunities to remain in Oberlin over the summer to support local nonprofit organizations.”
Continuing her presentation, Bryant shared how she helped motivate that same group of once-apathetic campers to collaborate on the design and construction of “FireFish,” a 24-foot art installation that will be featured at the inaugural FireFish Festival on September 26, 2015. “For me this summer, the festival was not my primary concern,” she said. “My primary concern was making sure the youth had what they needed in order to grow.”
As the fellow for the city of Oberlin, politics and law and society double-major Aaron Appel helped prepare youth ages 16-24 to enter the workforce by providing mentoring services and teaching soft job skills. Appel, who has extensive tutoring experience through the BCSL and other community service and internship endeavours, said the most challenging aspect of this fellowship was the fact that he was tutoring older teens, a group with which he had little experience. “My biggest lesson was that there would be no one-size-fits-all way to work with them,” he said.
Lillian White, who designed her individual major of cultural performance studies, worked closely with two teens as the fellow for Oberlin Community Services (OCS). New to OCS, White said she had to quickly learn the ins-and-outs of the organization’s operations while also serving as a mentor and friend to the teens. “Many systems target the low-income youth that I worked with,” she said. White says she helped teach the teens how to better navigate systems “not designed to help them.”
“I feel it was valuable for Lillian to witness that the challenges to disadvantaged students’ success has much less to do with their capabilities than it does with challenges in their home and social environment,” said OCS food coordinator Alan Mitchell.
Rewa Bush, an English major with a minor in environmental studies, served as the fellow for the Backspace at the Bridge and the Oberlin Public Library. She was tasked with designing and implementing programs, special events, and summer camps for local children ages 10 and older. After experiencing low attendance at early events, Bush said it became her goal to solicit as much feedback as possible from area youth about what programs they would like to see.
As a result of her efforts and interactions, program attendance and engagement increased, and a teen advisory board responsible for producing their own programs was created. “We were so fortunate to have Rewa working with us this summer,” said Amanda Guttman, Oberlin Library youth services librarian. “She was invaluable!”
Bush, who will continue to work with the Backspace and the library to ensure the success of the teen advisory board, said she was “happy to see youth learning, laughing out loud, and getting excited about potential fields for them in the future.”
Boster says the fellows served as many as 150 teens and young adults over the course of the summer. “The fellows performed brilliantly at their sites as ambassadors for the college and the community, as mentors to local youth, and by exploring broader issues that affect young people at the national level and thinking about how these concern particularly low-income youth in this community,” Boster says. “Each of the fellows, as well as alumni from last year's program, have helped build infrastructure to continue Oberlin youth mentoring programs that are responsive to ideas and interests expressed by the teens themselves.”
"The fellows are making a significant difference in the lives of teenagers in Oberlin and Lorain County,” said President Marvin Krislov, who attended the presentations. “I'm very proud of the work they are doing."
Depending on funding, the BCSL will begin seeking community partner applications for the 2016 PPSF program as early as October. Boster says she hopes to identify interested fellowship candidates during the fall 2015 semester and to make fellowship applications available in early spring 2016.