As an intern with the Richmond chapter of the Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI-VA), Joseph Kilgallen, ’17, spent his summer tutoring students and promoting awareness of the program in the community. Huddled around a table in a public library with a small group of immigrant high school students, Kilgallen led reading comprehension exercises and conversations on issues of global immigration and the rhetoric that surrounds them.
“The most rewarding aspect of working with SLI was forming the relationships with the students, sharing in their successes and learning from their experiences,” Kilgallen says. “We laughed and shared joy over successes and, at times, cried while discussing past hardships faced.”
Founded by Professor Peter Kaufman, George Matthews & Virginia Brinkley Modlin Chair in Leadership Studies, SLI is a three-year program that prepares students selected from under-resourced high schools for college success, through academic preparation, assistance with the college application process, and identification of scholarships.
Before interning with SLI-VA, Kilgallen had worked, traveled, and studied in East Africa. He says he was attracted to SLI-VA as an opportunity to benefit marginalized youth from a diverse community in the United States.
While connecting with the teenagers, Kilgallen was forced to confront the full gravity of their past experiences.
“Once when discussing the plight of Syrian refugees with a student, she asked me, ‘Why do people treat those different from them so poorly?’” Kilgallen remembers.
Kilgallen says that these experiences challenged his worldview and also brought to mind Machiavelli’s description of “the other” in the political treatise The Prince, which he studied in his leadership studies classes.
“While working with SLI students, I kept Machiavelli’s strategy of manipulating the public understanding of ‘the other’ in mind and used this to challenge my own beliefs concerning ‘the immigrant’ and come to a deeper understanding of our common humanity,” Kilgallen says.
For Kilgallen, who is considering a future in education, the experience of not only instructing students but also empathizing with them will be invaluable in his career. Kilgallen is applying for a Fulbright grant to return to East Africa to teach English as a second language in Kenya.
“After college I want to continue to work to empower marginalized youth through sustainable methods. Currently, the method that is resonating with me is education, as it creates independent thinkers who have the ability to change their own world in a culturally relative manner,” he says.
As part of his duties with SLI-VA, Kilgallen developed plans based on the students’ skill levels and tried to make learning even the challenging material enjoyable.
“To create a fun and engaging environment in which students were willing to take risks, I would regularly botch Spanish words and phrases (to show that failure was ok), try to keep everyone laughing by using outlandish examples and overemphatic gestures, and orient discussions towards each of the student’s specific interests and experiences,” he explains.
But Kilgallen’s experience with SLI-VA has affected him even more deeply than preparing him for a possible career in education.
He says, “I cannot overvalue the role of these students in expanding my own understanding of the breadth of human experience, our ability to overcome, and the critical importance of sharing love and joy with others.”