When Kelsey Stewart graduated with her degree in communications and social influence from the University of Maryland, College Park, she knew she wanted to help communities better understand each other by engaging in meaningful activism.
What she didn’t know was that her first job would be vigorously campaigning to teach high school students who don’t consider continuing their education, how to navigate the possibilities of attending college.
Through a unique partnership between the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) and the St. Mary’s County Public Schools (SMCPS), and funded by AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), CSM hired Stewart in August to go into SMCPS high schools and help seniors become first-generation college students.
“Our goal for this particular grant is to impact poverty in St. Mary’s County where there is a big economic divide between the have and have nots,” says CSM Special Project Director Lydia Williams. “We want to move people in poverty into the middle class with higher education and workforce development programs.”
Canvassing the community
Stewart visits a variety of St. Mary’s County communities to make connections in community centers, libraries and high schools and let students know that a college education is possible.
“The AmeriCorps goal aims to help close workforce gaps in the community, and to do that we start with showing students a path to build skills,” she says.
Stewart says she learned quickly that there is a lot of misconceptions among some student populations – and in some cases no information available at all – about the types of higher education credentials and institutions.
“It is eye-opening to learn that students don’t know how to pursue a trade certification, or that community college is accessible and affordable,” she says. “And I was surprised by how many students didn’t realize how easy it is to transfer to a four-year institution after enrolling in community college. Many students don’t know there are several ways to create a lucrative career.”
A three-part plan
CSM and SMCPS secured the AmeriCorps VISTA grant for Stewart’s work for one year and are pursuing additional funding.
AmeriCorps has several charges: To end hunger, end poverty and end homelessness. To that end, Stewart says her work is clear. First, she networked and identified students with whom to work. Now, she is gauging those students to get a better idea for their knowledge of postsecondary opportunities. Next, she plans to host events in the community to put the potential students in the same room with financial experts.
“A lot of students have told me they have the desire to keep learning after high school,” Stewart says. “It’s not a situation where students don’t want to go learn a trade or some other type of career. In most cases, the students I am talking with explain there is a barrier to their thought process about continuing their education – whether it’s physical, monetary or emotional. In each instance, it has to do with the student not having the information about how to get ahead, let alone the network to help them get there.”
Stewart adds that she plans to host “as many meaningful events that spread the word” as she can.
“I want more people to understand their options,” she says. “Today, we are opening up the world to high school seniors, and tomorrow we’d like to work with early ages in earlier grades so there is just no more confusion about all the options that are out there. We want the possibility of a secondary education to be engrained in the community itself.”
Fulfilling the goal
AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) are charged with bringing passion and perseverance where the need is greatest: to organizations that help eradicate poverty. AmeriCorps VISTA members serve as a catalyst for change, living and working alongside community members to meet our nation’s most pressing challenges and advance local solutions.
“Our goal is to build on the great work that Kelsey is doing for the students in St. Mary’s County and replicate her programs in Calvert and Charles counties through subsequent grants,” says Eileen Abel, vice president of academic affairs at CSM.
For her part, Stewart – a North Point High School graduate and former CSM drivers education student – receives a stipend from AmeriCorps, and upon completion of her work, she qualifies for an end-of-service option called the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. That award is a lump sum of money to put toward college student loans.