Reading, writing and reflecting on service learning

Contact: Erin Flynn
Sam McGrath poses at a table with a sketch pad.

Sam McGrath, a business student, recently served as a volunteer for Read and Write Kalamazoo.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Breaking up arguments over playground equipment and cleaning up juice box spills isn't the way most college students choose to spend their free time. But Western Michigan University business student Sam McGrath isn't like most.

"I loved getting a chance to work with kids," says McGrath, an honors student from Canton who is majoring in food and consumer package goods marketing as well as leadership and business strategy. She just completed a course on business ethics and sustainability, which requires students to complete 15 hours of community service with an organization in southwest Michigan and reflect on how the experience applies to their future careers.

More than a dozen community partners met with students at the beginning of the semester, offering a wide variety of experiences in everything from senior living communities to fire stations.

McGrath is passionate about reading and writing, so when it came time to choose an organization to work with, she immediately gravitated toward Read and Write Kalamazoo. The nonprofit "exists to celebrate and amplify youth voices through the cultivation of reading and writing skills," according to its website.

"We are extremely grateful for our partnership with the WMU Service Learning program," says Kai Harris, volunteer coordinator for RAWK. "Simply put, having volunteers like Sam means we can do what we do."

A Learning Experience

The chance to help kids develop writing skills got McGrath excited about her service learning project.

"I love hearing about people's stories. I love that creative aspect," says McGrath.

Still, going from a college classroom to a room packed with energized kids is a culture shock.

 "You have to approach communication in a different way because the kids have shorter attention spans and don't always understand everything you're saying, so I did a lot of figuring that out the first couple of weeks," says McGrath.

While it doesn't directly fit with her career goals, McGrath says she learned a lot from the elementary students she worked with in the after-school program at Kalamazoo's Lincoln International Studies School. She coordinated snacks and recreation as well as helped students with schoolwork.

A volunteer sits at a table with a student in front of a book shelf.

Volunteers with Read and Write Kalamazoo help local students find their voice by cultivating their reading and writing skills. (RAWK)

"A lot of the students just wanted to be heard. They just wanted to know that you cared about them," McGrath says. "I think that's a transferable skill wherever you go, to make your employees or co-workers feel that they're part of something."

The skills youth take away also stretch beyond the classroom.

"While our programs are intended to help youth build their literacy skills through one-on-one tutoring with our student volunteers, the impact our volunteers have on students goes beyond just reading and writing," says Jason Conde, RAWK's director of education. "During the time our youth spend with student volunteers, they develop their confidence as readers and writers, understand the importance of their voices and stories and learn problem solving, social-emotional and behavioral management skills."

Building the Future

McGrath and other student volunteers also give the kids a glimpse at what their future could hold.

"It's really special for our students who get to work one-on-one with WMU volunteers because they get help with reading, writing and homework, and they also get to ask about what it's like to be a college student," says Conde. "Because we serve at-risk, low-income and vulnerable communities, this might be the only opportunity for our youth to engage with college students."

Many of the students RAWK works with are eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise, which covers up to 100% of tuition to Michigan colleges and universities for Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates.

"They see WMU students who look like them, who they can relate to and who show genuine interest in them," says Harris. "This is vital in helping nurture the confidence and drive in a young KPS student."

"There were so many little moments of joy where the students shared a sense of accomplishment," says McGrath. "They were timid or anxious the first time I met with them and by the time I left, they were comfortable sharing things that they wouldn't have before. The growth I saw within them is something I really enjoyed."

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.