Maddy Dunbar, ’17, chatted cheerily with preschoolers as they ate their breakfast in a sun-drenched classroom at the VCU Child Care Center Northside on a recent morning. Dunbar, who works at the child care center two days a week, loves interacting with young children.

Dunbar’s introduction to the child care center, which serves children ages six weeks to five years, came the fall of her sophomore year when she enrolled in the community-based-learning class Gender, Race, and Class: Childhood taught by Dr. Julianne Guillard.

“Most of my classmates chose to work with older children,” Dunbar said, “but I wanted to work with the little kids.” She registered to volunteer at the child care center through Build It, a neighborhood-based program coordinated by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

At first Dunbar was surprised at how easily she connected theories from her three majors—sociology, American studies, and women, gender, and sexuality studies (WGSS)—to her work at the child care center.

“I wrote my paper for Dr. Guillard’s class on the gender differences in play choice in young children,” Dunbar said. “The boys go to the blocks or the science center, and the girls go to the art and house centers—although one boy liked to play at the art and house centers. Outside, boys are more likely to ride bikes.”

Dunbar’s work at the child care center also informed her learning in her Digital Memory and the Archive class taught by Dr. Nicole Maurantonio in fall 2016.

“Our class used the Race and Racism at the University of Richmond Project to learn about how segregation and desegregation policies affected education,” Dunbar said. “I could see how Richmond, Va., became so racially divided. That’s why the child care center is unique—it is mixed racially and socio-economically.

“Kids notice racial differences, but they don’t know the background context. A kid will say, ‘I have brown skin, my mom has brown skin, but you don’t.’”

Dunbar has come to appreciate the importance of quality preschool in preparing children for kindergarten as well as the rich diversity found at the child care center, which offers scholarships to low-income children.

“Experiencing diversity in race, socio-economic status, and family backgrounds is good for everyone, including young children,” Dunbar said. “The teachers talk about it in class.”

Child care center director Sarah Verno noted that UR volunteers like Dunbar “bring continued cultural diversity to the center, a genuine desire to connect with the children and staff, and a love of learning.”

After completing Dr. Guillard’s class, Dunbar continued volunteering at the child care center out of her newly discovered love of young children. Her junior year she served on the Build It student-leadership team as a liaison to the child care center. This year Dunbar has been working two days a week as a part-time employee of the child care center.

“Volunteering helped me figure out I want to focus on education policy, specifically early childhood education policy,” Dunbar said. Following graduation, she plans to work full-time at the child care center for several years before pursuing master’s degrees in social work and public policy, with the ultimate goal of developing preschool education policies.

But for now, Dunbar enjoys time spent with preschoolers away from the stresses of college life. “The children who are now in the toddler room had just been born when I started volunteering,” Dunbar said. “It’s terrifying—I’m so old!”