By Dr. Caitlin Haugen, BTC Assistant Director
When Amber Farn completed an assignment for the Beyond the Classroom foundation course (UNIV325), she had no idea where it would take her. The assignment requires students to research organizations that are addressing issues that interest them, and to find potential internships in those organizations. In her research, she found the City Year program, a nonprofit that supports year-long volunteer experiences in schools in 23 cities across the United States. After she graduated in 2011, she joined City Year as a corps member at an urban high school in Philadelphia. In her work, she provides in-class support for teachers, tutors students who need additional support, and teaches classes.
“Currently, I work in ninth grade English and math classes, an eleventh grade math class, an ESL class, and a special education English class,” she explained. “After school, I run the Fitness Club, help out with the track team, and work with seniors on their senior projects.” Her school has a highly diverse population, but Farn noted, “One characteristic that they all have in common is that most of them come from low-income families and live in a relatively dangerous, violent neighborhood. Many students that I’ve worked with have difficulty doing basic addition and subtraction, and their reading level is still in elementary or middle school. What upsets me the most is that many of them lack role models in their lives and have very low self-esteem.”
Educational inequities surround her. “It is frustrating to work in urban schools because I understand that the problem is bigger than just students not being able to graduate from high school. If their reading level is only at the sixth grade level, there must be an issue in their elementary/middle school education. There are also the issues of homelessness, hunger, drug abuse, and crime… It is great to see my students improve over time, but I often wonder, what will happen after I leave? Am I really making a difference in these students’ lives?”
Farn works as a volunteer, and receives a stipend of less than $800 a month. “It’s barely enough to cover my rent and other living expenses,” she notes. “I have to leave home around 6:30 am to get to my high school at 7:30am, and I don’t get home until 6:00 or 7:00 pm. We also have to plan and participate in community service projects on some weekends.” The challenges are worth it, however, and she considers this, “by far the most meaningful year of my life.” The experience has paid off. She was just accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Counseling and Mental Health graduate program for the fall. “Because of my experience with City Year,” she added, “I’m hoping to focus on urban youth development in graduate school.”
Before she joined Beyond the Classroom, Farn was not familiar with the power of service or how to get involved in civic issues she felt passionately about. “Coming from a suburban neighborhood, the challenges that my students face were completely unfamiliar to me,” she noted. She credits the BTC program for helping her find City Year, for giving her the tools to learn about issues that are important to her, and for inspiring her to commit to a year of service. “I just want to let you know how much I appreciate the BTC program…[it] really opened my eyes.”
BTC would like to extend a special thanks to Amber Farn for reaching out and sharing her experiences. Other alumni who wish to share their experiences in future blogs may contact the program at firstname.lastname@example.org.