From CCP to UNC: the Lessons I Learned Volunteering at FNC

In late July, I experienced the proudest moment of my life. FNC gifted me with an award to be presented annually in recognition of my volunteer efforts, the “Zach Hughes Community Service Award.” I was floored, and honestly, am still in shock.

As I sit here at FNC’s main office after a successful first semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), I thought it might help others to list out some strategies that helped me to transfer from Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) to UNC; a world-renowned institution. I dedicate the following list of advice to the ten USLA teens I had the pleasure of working with this past spring and summer. You all impressed me so much, made an incredible impact on me and have my full confidence in starting your new journey in college. Jay, Yvonne, Sarah, Shaqui, Angela, Patrice, Dorrian, Kailaa, Zahira and Quanesha – thank you so much.

Seek out mentors and listen to them.

During my time at CCP, I actively tried to befriend as many professors as I could. Prof. Carolyn Birden, my Fall 2013 English professor, made a profound impact on me during my first semester. During office hours one day, she imparted some wisdom that caused me to reevaluate and change my entire approach during the short two years I had at community college. She told me that I was “scholarship material” and asked me why I didn’t have any volunteer experience. She explained to me how important volunteer experience is to scholarship committees so I made it my goal to find an ongoing volunteer position related to my major after my first semester. This goal led to me setting that fateful meeting on February 20th, 2014 with Claire and Jerry. Even after my single class with Prof. Birden, I kept in touch every semester and was able to get a letter of recommendation to UNC from a mentor who knew me as a student and as a person outside the classroom. We still exchange emails regularly.

Believe in yourself and get to work.

This is the simplest strategy but the most important. Without believing in my abilities, I wouldn’t have gone after a volunteer position on top of a full-time school schedule and a part-time job. If you’re too tired, nap and focus again when you feel more refreshed. Write down your long-term goals, break them into smaller ones and never lose focus. If you can’t make it to the office regularly to do work, try to find a way to get work done remotely. With determination and the right amount of effort, you can accomplish amazing things.

Talk to everyone. Build a team of friends with similar skills and interests.

In July 2014, after months of planning and tweaking by myself, Casey Levy volunteered at the office for an entire week which helped us to launch the new website redesign on schedule. I learned that so much more work could be accomplished with more man power!

I began to solicit the help of friends, family and classmates to help me with some of the goals I created for FNC. I soon received help from two classmates: Alex Millman, who created a custom WordPress theme, and Rilwan Bello, now the new Web Development Intern at FNC, who helped me fine-tune the new website that you are viewing today. My good friend Ryan Engle helped me direct and edit the 10 USLA interviews. And lastly, my younger cousin Emily Eltz helped me with the social media campaign behind the 2015 USLA GoFundMe. It is because of the collective impact of the names assembled above that we were able to accomplish so much during my time at FNC.

Mentor the youth.

When I started the Web Development internship with FNC, my goal was to create a brand new site for FNC and learn as much as I could about web development in the process. I never thought that I would be given the chance to be an active part of the youth programming at FNC. But that opportunity arrived when I was offered the job of being an USLA mentor, a position which ended up changing my outlook on life.

The position was to help the USLA students with marketing their annual farm stand. To do so, I developed a curriculum to teach the high-school seniors how to:

  • Build a marketing plan.
  • Create flyers to advertise the Farm Stand.
  • Develop elevator speeches to promote themselves and the farm stand around the local Philadelphia community.
  • Write social media posts on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

During this time, I became incredibly close with this amazing team. I quickly realized that a mentor role is a selfless position. I realized that if I was going to make impact with this young group of high-school seniors, I would have to make them trust me. To do so, I tried my best to come into each mentoring session with a smile, get to know their names as quickly as I could and to really get to know them by finding out their interests, goals, troubles, etc. While we only had 10 weeks together, I learned so much about them and hope that they remember our time fondly as well.

Pick a skill you want to nurture. Create a job for yourself at a local nonprofit in need.

After speaking with Prof. Birden (see tip #1), I scoured the internet looking for local volunteer positions. However, I didn’t look for just any type of volunteer position. I wanted to find something that would be beneficial to what I was studying in school; something that could augment my schooling and help build my resume in the process. Being a new Computer Science major, I decided that I wanted to understand Web Development far more deeply. That is when I found a “Social Media Intern” volunteer position on FNC’s old website and persistently emailed and wrote messages on the group’s Facebook page until I finally was given an interview.

Before the interview, I prepared immensely and came in with problems I seen with their current website and a list of things I’d like to accomplish as their intern. And the rest is history. I have learned so much about Web Development in the process but more importantly, was deeply impacted after given a chance to work in the nonprofit industry. It helped me to understand the importance of helping those who need it and become an entirely new, more selfless, person. I matured greatly because of my experiences at this amazing nonprofit.

I would like to thank the FNC team for putting together an incredible going away party, for the great talks we’ve had and all of the valuable lessons you have all taught me over the past year-and-a-half. I also want to give a special thank you to Jerry Tapley – for trusting me enough to give me complete control in building FNC’s web presence, spearheading the creation of the “Zach Hughes Community Service Award,” and for believing in me from the get-go. I will always cherish this gift, but especially the fact that it came from you.

USLA Youth Spotlight: Jay

We’re back with the second installment of our USLA Youth Spotlight. Earlier this week, we sat down with Jay, an extremely bright and inquisitive 18-year-old senior at Philadelphia School District’s Bodine High School. During our chat, we talked about the challenges he faced when he first immigrated to America from China five years ago, what life in Philadelphia’s public high schools are like, and his plans for the future. Here is what he had to say:

Tell me a little bit about yourself.
If you don’t know me, maybe you think I’m a quiet person. But, if you get to know me more, I’m really talkative. I am kind of funny, I mean I can take jokes. I am kinda a really outgoing person. I like to learn new things and I am really passionate about computers. I also really like to play pool.

Pool? Where do you play pool at usually?
Wherever I can find some competition. Anywhere.

How long have you been in America and where were you living before?
5 years. China.

OK. Why did you and your family come to America?
From my point of view, I believe my family wanted a better future for me. Because in China, the job opportunities are limited.

What was life like when you first came to America?
It was really, really tough. When I came here, I didn’t come straight to Philadelphia, we landed at Seattle and we spent, like, roughly 3 months there at my aunt’s house. My family couldn’t get a job. We couldn’t go to school. So we decided to leave my aunt’s house and come to Philadelphia. My parents hoped to find steady work here.
[Life in Philadelphia] was better immediately because I got into school a week after. This really helped me entertainment myself. Seattle had been boring.

I know you are interested in computers. Did you have a computer at this point?
I’ve been using a computer since age 6, but mostly for video games. I didn’t start programming yet or writing code because I didn’t know where to start.

Yeah I know what you mean. Programming can seem inaccessible when you’re young with no guidance. Does your high school have courses available that teach Java, Python or any other programming languages?
Not really. I wish they would but maybe they don’t have the resources or money available to afford it. The budget cut really affected our school.

The budget cut? When did that happen?
There was a budget cut at the beginning of the year. It was a huge difference. We used to get [a lot of] free stuff. We had more teachers, more classes. I heard of this because I transferred to Bodine when I was a junior but I heard that there was a Chinese language class, a French class and a Spanish class. I mean, they kept French and Spanish, but not Chinese.

The public school system in Philadelphia has proved to be very controversial over the past few years. Why did you transfer to Bodine?
Well I started at Kensington Urban High School, and I wanted a greater challenge. Kensington was extremely easy. I was a straight-A student. I mean, [at Kensington], you didn’t have to do anything.

What do you mean? Explain.
In my point of view, I think people just go to school for fun. They really didn’t care. They didn’t have a book bag, no pen, no books. They’re only going to school because its mandatory and they aren’t allowed in the street.

Wow. I’m sure that must have been extremely distracting to a good student, like yourself, Jay. When you first came to Philadelphia, did you find it difficult to make friends?
I think it’s my own problem because I’m really picky. I don’t like loud kids. I don’t like people who curse. Most people in my school curse out of nowhere and I hate it. Some kids argue out of nowhere and disrupt the class. I’m always the quietest one in the corner and paying attention to what the teacher says. But the one thing I don’t get, the teacher always pays attention to the noisy kids, but he never really pays attention to me.

Was this in Kensington or is this going on right now, at Bodine? Are they not answering your questions?
I mean, they just, they answered [my questions] but not in a serious way – just a random answer [that didn’t help me].

So, are you saying that you feel like they aren’t giving you the respect that you deserve as a student?
Yes. I mean, he’s a really good teacher. But he did this to me and he made me feel uncomfortable. I asked him a question about homework and he just quickly said “we’ll talk about it tomorrow” – and then he forgot about it.

I’m sorry Jay. I completely understand. He pretty much “brushed you off” and made you feel like your question wasn’t important. You deserve much better than that! You are supposed to ask questions in school – so keep asking them! But maybe he was having a rough day. Do you think that was possible?
I think that he was probably having a tough day and dealing with a tough class.

Well, at least you’re doing what’s right Jay. You can only worry about yourself. You’re almost finished high school. That’s a tremendous accomplishment! When do you graduate and what are your plans for the Fall?
Haha thanks – I’m trying. My graduation is June 15th and then I start in the Fall at CCP [Community College of Philadelphia], I’m going for Computer Science and have started reading a textbook on the Java programming language to get a head start on the material.

That’s awesome Jay! So, when did you first start working with the Federation of Neighborhood Centers? How did you hear about us?
Well, FNC came to our school, Bodine, on 4th and Girard, and it seemed very interesting. So I signed up. That was in October of last year.

Do you think USLA/FNC have helped you?
Yeah it helped me a lot. Before, I was so scared to talk to people because of my accent and my English. They helped me develop my public speaking. They helped me a lot on my college applications. And I have grown a lot as a person.

So you’re becoming a more well-rounded person, ready to enter college and eventually the workforce. That’s great. You’re getting ready to start a paid internship with USLA too right? What are you going to be doing through the internship?
There are different categories. The one I picked is marketing. Although its not technology, its related because we have to make flyers, post on social media to get information about the farm stand out to the [general public].

Jay, thank you so much for talking with us today. I have one last question for you. What is your favorite part of USLA?
My favorite part is when we come together and work on a project. Not really a project, but when we open up and listen to each other’s history. I like learning about everyone else’s personal histories.

USLA Youth Spotlight: Shaqui

“Over the past few months, members of FNC’s youth programming staff have had the pleasure of witnessing a group of 10 young men and women accomplish amazing things through our Urban Sustainability Leadership Academy! Each member of our group has been active in resume writing, practice interviews, and workshops related to college and career skills and are currently in the beginning phase of their three-month internship. We are proud to announce that, as of the beginning of February, ALL of our participants have received college acceptance letters and are well on their way toward bright, successful futures.” – Luke McKetta, Director of Youth Programming 

current usla participants, march 2015

current usla participants, march 2015

Shaqui, one of FNC’s Urban Sustainability Leadership Academy participants, has an infectious smile that could brighten up anyone’s day. In the summer of 2014, he first became involved with FNC after hearing about Teens4Good through his cousin LaQuanda, who has been working with us for a few years now. Shaqui’s passion for getting things done and helping out caused us to offer him a Market Intern position for Teens4Good when the summer concluded. Through this paid internship, Shaqui was able to develop practical business skills as he coordinated T4G’s produce sales at local farmers markets. After the internship, he stayed involved by working closely with USLA.

Shaqui, a USLA participant, who has been working with FNC since summer 2014

Shaqui, a USLA participant, who has been working with FNC since summer 2014

Currently a senior at West Philadelphia High School, Shaqui took the time to tell us a little bit about himself during a recent USLA meeting.

Tell me a little about yourself.
I grew up in SW Philadelphia. I am the 2nd oldest of 4 children. I’m currently in 12th grade. I’m kinda taking care of my sisters right now because my mom died last year, and my dad can’t do it. My [older] brother has his own family so I’m making sure my sisters are OK.

Wow. How old are your sisters?
My little sister just turned 10 last year. My other sister just turned 16 and this year I’m turning 19.

Luke, our youth programming director, told me that everyone in USLA was accepted to college. Do you know where you are going to go next year?
Yes, I’m still deciding on Clarion College or Delaware County Community College. Most likely, I’ll end up going to Delaware County Community College.

Do you think the programs here at FNC have helped you out?
Yeah. It helped me out especially during the summertime…when I first started, I didn’t have communication skills. I didn’t know how to talk to people or say the right things. So during the summer I practiced my public speaking a lot and after that, my communication skills became very good. I was in my shell a lot before and now I don’t mind talking to anybody.

I know that you have a lot of responsibility currently with finishing up your final year of high school and helping to take care of your little sisters, but what do you do during your free time? Is there anything you are passionate about?
Right now, I’m working on a few projects for my high school to graduate. But my real passion is nursing. Back when I lived in Delaware County, I was in a program called Delaware County Technical Schools [DCTS] where I focused on health occupations. [Through the program] I got CPR certified, I went to nursing homes in the area, cooked for them…fed them…changed bedpans.

Through the hands-on training provided by DCTS and his daily experience in helping out his younger sisters, he has been steadily developing the skills needed to have a successful career in the medical field. Shaqui is just one of the many extraordinary and talented individuals voluntarily bettering themselves and their local communities through our USLA program. With his go-getter attitude and initiative for excellence, Shaqui has many options available to him to realize and eventually accomplish his dreams. With the world in his hands, it will surely prove to be very exciting to see what this gifted, young mind can accomplish in his future.

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