By Katherine Dillon
My first semester at Fordham University was much like that of those portrayed in movies and TV shows – I was almost always learning, meeting new people, or simply in a state of awe at the newness of everything.
I had so often heard before leaving for college that my first point of discovery would be with the clubs I joined. So, eager and excited, I signed up for almost every club offered on campus. By the time I had finished touring the tables of clubs lined up around the quad my hand ached, and my feet were sore.
During that club fair was when I stumbled upon Generation Citizen. Like all of the forty or so clubs before, I signed up and didn’t give it much thought. It was a club to add to the growing list that would eventually be narrowed down to a select few I felt passion for.
As I researched each club, something about Generation Citizen set it apart from the other clubs. Certainly I was keen on the opportunity to return to a high school classroom and give my time and energy to the next generation. But this was not unique to Generation Citizen.
What truly sets Generation Citizen apart from other clubs is the ability to make a lasting and tangible change around a community issue – whether that issue be on a local level, or applicable to communities across America. Before I begin discussing my full experience with Generation Citizen, let me preface by explaining how my students and I worked on a community issue that had a broader, national relevance. In the fall of 2014, when several controversial Grand Jury decisions such as those of Eric Garner and Michael Brown were made, my students and I chose our community issue as police brutality. Not only did our discussions on the issue carry more weight with their relevance, but my students were working on the same issue in class that was the subject of riots and protests throughout America.
I would be surprised if any other of my peers could say that they were able to this kind of meaningful, lasting, and impactful work for their community.
Now, let me go back to how my first semester began, and how now, looking back on this year with Generation Citizen, my life and the lives of those around me have changed.
My first memory of Generation Citizen was during my interview, when I was asked how I would tackle the community issue of homelessness. My first thought was to talk about how, hypothetically, one could raise money or awareness in order to reduce the rate of homelessness. Again, let me underscore the uniqueness of Generation Citizen: while most would answer as I planned to, by raising money or awareness, Generation Citizen goes further. We aim to make a permanent policy change, rather than temporary relief or temporary awareness.
It was in that moment, when I was formulating my response to the interview question, that I got excited for what lay ahead. I understood then that by joining Generation Citizen, I would be given an incredible responsibility — a chance to make that lasting systemic change within my new community of the Bronx.
Like many, my expectations of the semester were idealistic: we would accomplish our goal, I would be that period of the day my students would look forward to, and everything would run smoothly.
Inevitably my first semester of GC had both ups and downs.
Once the initial excitement wore off, I began struggling. I religiously followed the curriculum, becoming too focused on the little details. Each page of my first curriculum is almost entirely highlighted, covered in sticky notes with comments, suggestions, and alterations to each lesson. I was so keen to help my students as well as I possibly could, relying entirely on the curriculum as my primary source of comfort and guidance for lesson plans.
This reliance on my curriculum hindered more than helped. I stressed that if during one class we didn’t get to every activity, I had to squeeze it in next class. This cyclical habit eventually led my class to fall behind schedule. My stress built up with each class, and I began to feel incredibly frustrated with myself as a Democracy Coach. Why was I struggling so much if I was following exactly what the curriculum suggested?
The point that caught us most was when we were deciding between two community issues: bullying or police brutality. My students became divided between these two choices, with fierce advocates on each side. Discussions were passionate and heated, taking up entire classes. I focused so much on reaching a consensus that realistically would require more than I was capable of. I couldn’t find it in myself to cut my students short, because I knew how important both issues were.
Any Democracy Coach would struggle if they reached such a divide in their class, but I also struggled simply because I had never been in a situation like Generation Citizen before. In order to compensate, to a certain extent, I ended up making myself unnecessary. I wasn’t comfortable yet with my ability to lead a class, so I planned each lesson to the minute. All I had to do when I walked into the classroom was give my students directions and make sure they did their work. I didn’t trust myself to relax, be flexible, or improvise when an activity wasn’t successful. I was almost like a robot; relying on directions, lacking independence.
Yet, in spite of the challenges I faced during my first semester, looking back, I can honestly say that I learned and experienced more in that high school classroom than I did in my college classrooms.
My chapter leaders often say that people’s first semester with GC involves a lot of first experiences and learning new skills. For example, it’s strange to think that picking up a phone and calling an office is considered a skill today, yet it’s true. In this digital age we rely heavily on emails, preferring to be nameless, faceless, voiceless email addresses. In addition, had I skipped over GC, I would never gone down to the NYPD headquarters to talk with the Director of Collaborative Policing regarding police brutality – almost a week after protests began over the Grand Jury’s decision in the chokehold case of Eric Garner.
More profound than learning about the workings of the government branches, how to communicate efficiently, or how to make a lasting change, was learning about new people. I grew up in a sheltered suburb, just like all my friends and all the people I tend to surround myself with. Prior to stepping into the classroom I had never met anyone from the Bronx, or a student who held two jobs to provide money for their family, or someone who had actually experienced police brutality. Those were things I had read about, and knew existed, but had never heard about first-hand. Yet, I recall during a discussion on police brutality, how several students offered to share their experiences with the police. One student had seen a policeman assault her cousin, within her own home. Another student had been hit by the school’s police guard when an argument escalated. Those were stories that moved me deeply, as they made me reassess my life and truly appreciate how sheltered of a life I lived.
Interestingly, hearing my students describe their experiences also made me incredibly frustrated with myself – why had I never tried to branch outside of my narrow bubble before this? Why did I live in such an oblivion to lives unlike my own? Reading about such things lost its effect on me; stories just becoming facts or anecdotes I could rattle off when prompted. Yet, it was my students who gave me a new perspective.
If I were to characterize my first semester with GC, and give a word of advice, it would be to explore outside of one’s comfort zone. I was lucky to have had such a powerful discussion with my students, but broadening one’s sphere of life need not be so profound. Whether it be to make a phone call, or to venture out into a new part of town, be eager to challenge yourself to experience something new. Seek out the opportunity or ask the difficult question – and be sure to listen fully to the answer. I would even go as far to say seek out being uncomfortable. Once the discomfort wears off, you have gained something new: experience, knowledge, perspective.
With my first semester behind me, I approached this new class with an intensified motivation and enthusiasm. I figured out where I had stumbled and struggled, and began to identify my strengths and weaknesses. I knew I was a hard worker, and was motivated to helping my students achieve their goal. I also knew I had a tendency to be too narrowly focused. So, my second semester, instead of applying my strong work ethic towards the narrow details, I focused on the broader picture of each class – the objectives of that particular day, week, and month. As a result, my classes were more fluid, efficient, and flexible. Instead of my classes being dictated by a rigid lesson plan, I set class objectives which were broad, general, but kept within the focus of the curriculum. I gave myself freedom and independence within the class.
However my biggest change as a DC was largely unconscious. After my first semester finished, I became more comfortable with the daily process of Generation Citizen. I started connecting more personally and genuinely – both with my class and those in my community. Instead of rushing by the guys handing out pamphlets on Fordham Road, one day I decided to take a pamphlet from each and every person. When my students were discussing community issues, and gentrification came up, I was eager to hear what my students’ thoughts on the topic, and more broadly about class conflicts. It was in those moments that I learned and gained the most. Baby steps outside of my comfort zone actually helped me feel more comfortable, both with my surroundings and myself. After only a week, walking through the Bronx to the subway wasn’t scary. I also began to listen more to my students about the struggles they faced in their community, even if I felt awkward at first.
So this changed work style, as well as my increased comfort and confidence, are two of the key reasons for my changed attitude towards GC. Even beyond my time with GC, the skills I have learned – to trust myself, my abilities, and all those around me – will serve me well in the future.
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.