Laughter and shrieks of excitement rang out as children raced around the Overby-Sheppard Elementary School gym during the annual school dance one March afternoon. The much-anticipated dance rewards students who have demonstrated good behavior throughout the year.
Approximately 50 University of Richmond volunteers from Pi Beta Phi Sorority and Lambda Chi Fraternity staffed the popcorn, cotton candy, jewelry-making, limbo, photo, tattoo and thank-you-note stations at the dance. One volunteer, Liz Nigro, ’17, helped organize the event, including co-writing with Overby-Sheppard’s then Communities in Schools site coordinator Bridget Ungerleider a Bonner Community Fund grant that financed the dance.
“It was fun to see the kids teaching the UR volunteers all the latest dance moves,” Nigro said. “I feel so old and out of touch. I laughed at myself and the kids laughed at me as I tried to learn the moves.”
Nigro laughs and smiles a lot when she talks about her experiences at Overby-Sheppard, a public school in a low-income Richmond neighborhood where she has been volunteering since her sophomore year through Build It, the neighborhood-based civic-engagement program of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE).
Her introduction to civic engagement in Richmond came the week before her freshman year when she participated in the pre-semester program Roadmap to Success.
“[CCE Director] Sylvia Gale’s Roadmap class made me realize the interconnected nature of humankind and how important it is to develop relationships and understanding through community outreach,” Nigro said. “She became my academic advisor and encouraged me to get involved with the CCE.”
Her first semester, Nigro volunteered with Build It as a classroom aide at Henderson, a public middle school serving a low-income student population. “I was struck by the juxtaposition between UR where students receive an elite education and Henderson only 15 minutes down the road,” Nigro said. “Education is a public good. If you want to prepare kids for citizenry, you have to give them the goods to be successful.”
In Dr. Nathan Snaza’s Democracy and Education course, Nigro studied John Dewey’s theories on education as a staple for a vital democracy. She examined education equity as a human-rights issue in the course Bringing Human Rights Home, taught by Dr. Jennifer Erkulwater and Dr. Jan French.
Nigro connected the theories she learned in these community-based-learning courses to her volunteering at Overby-Sheppard. “I rejected the Superman complex, where I would go in to ‘make a difference’ and leave at the end of the semester feeling good about myself,” she said.
“It takes time to build relationships. I want to focus on reciprocity and be open to listening, not talking. It’s important to keep coming back.”
Nowhere is that more important than in a mentoring relationship, as Nigro learned by working with one particular Overby-Sheppard student for the past two-and-a-half years. Nigro and the boy’s teachers have encouraged him to create a positive narrative about himself and to foster his love of math.
““The CCE has a deep, sustained partnership with Overby-Sheppard dating back to 2005, and Liz's sustained commitment to the school led me to tap her to serve on the Build It student-leadership team,” said Cassie Price, Build It manager. "She has worked tirelessly to recruit other students to volunteer at Overby-Sheppard and has initiated several projects that have benefitted the school, such as a recent book drive by her Pi Beta Phi Sorority that netted approximately 800 books for Overby-Sheppard.”
In addition to her work at Overby-Sheppard, Nigro explored education equity in summer 2015 when she received Spider Internship Funds to support her work as a middle school teacher in Cape Town, South Africa, while she took classes at the University of Cape Town.
“In one of my classes we analyzed the racial segregation in South Africa,” Nigro said. “I saw so many parallels with the United States and decided it makes sense for me to work on these problems in the United States where I know more of the context and can make a more sustainable difference.”
In summer 2016 the CCE awarded Nigro an Urban Education Fellowship to teach current events to under-served teens at the nonprofit Youth Life Foundation of Richmond. “Current events enlighten the students about the world around them,” Nigro said. “I hope the students will become committed to the change they wish to see.”
This spring, Nigro will graduate with a B.A. in philosophy, politics, economics and law (PPEL) and minors in education and society and Italian studies. She has accepted a post-graduation position with Urban Teachers as an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C.
“I want a career in education policy,” Nigro said. “But I think it’s important to get classroom experience first. When considering a career, you have to ask, why am I doing this? Forming personal connections and making a difference motivates me.”
Photo: Liz Nigro, ’17, center, presents books collected through the Pi Beta Phi book drive to Overby-Sheppard Elementary School principal Kara Lancaster-Gay, right, and Community in Schools site coordinator India Perez, left.