College students can turn to any number of people for instruction. Faculty, advisors, librarians, program administrators — they’re all there to help University of Richmond students learn.

But this past summer, lessons on child development, education inequality, and social change came from a different source: local middle school students.

The Urban Education Fellowship program — organized by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement under the umbrella of UR Summer Fellowships — placed seven University students in six-week internships with Higher Achievement and Youth Life Foundation. They worked together to prepare curricula, teach classes, and facilitate activities for middle school students participating in summer programs through the two organizations.

The interns didn’t operate in a vacuum, though. The cohort met regularly to talk about their experiences and hear from guest speakers on such topics as brain and gender development, mentoring, the impact of stress and poverty, and what local organizations are doing to address challenges in Richmond.

The experience was a multifaceted look at a complex problem facing local schools and communities nationwide. “Education is a social issue that touches all of us,” says Adrienne Piazza, manager of educational initiatives and leadership development in the CCE. “We’ve all been through it. We’re all going to have neighbors in an area that has a school. That’s why it’s important to understand the struggles of middle schools.”

Here, four students share their experiences as Urban Education Fellows.

Isabelle Harrison, ’16
Major: Political science
Organization: Youth Life Foundation

As a political science major, the policy side of education particularly interested me. During my internship, I was immersed in the Northside community of Richmond. I drove the mini bus to pick up students at their houses. I knocked on their doors and met their mothers, siblings, aunts, and entire extended families. I spent hours each week with my students, in academic and nonacademic settings, and came to understand the challenges they faced in the classroom grew from the inadequacies in their homes and in the community. I had poured over books and articles in class that illustrated what I was coming to witness firsthand. I transitioned from approaching educational reform from a large-scale, systematic approach to a more individualistic approach.

Hannah Jacobs, ’15
Major: History
Minor: Secondary education
Organization: Higher Achievement

A key moment this summer happened on the second day of summer academy. My homeroom class was particularly tough. I could not get them to engage in the lesson and got very frustrated. After lunch, we had Learning Lab, which is where I get my homeroom class back for a reading period. Instead of having them do the activity I had planned, I sat down at their level and asked them what I could do to make them engage better in the lesson. I just had a casual conversation with them so we could both avoid what happened earlier in the morning.

As I read my reflections from the beginning of the summer, I think I mostly evolved as an actual teacher. I learned that doing things that my scholars liked to do helped them understand the material.

Erica Yamamoto, ’15
Major: Biochemistry
Organization: Higher Achievement

My view of education, healthcare, and poverty changed over the course of six weeks. I always thought of healthcare and education as completely separate entities that did not have a lot of overlap. The more time I spent with the students, however, the more I realized how much the circumstances of their lives affect how they do in the classroom. Education cannot be taken as a single subject. All of its components — physical health, stable home environment, emotional wellbeing, and more — need to be considered.

Sarah Lee, ’15
Major: Latin American and Iberian studies
Minor: Elementary education
Organization: Youth Life Foundation

Richmond acts as a microcosm for the state of public urban education. A lot of the problems are common to cities all over America. To that end, it really expanded my understanding of how we need to respond to poverty. There is no simple solution.

This summer, though, I really felt compelled to pursue a master’s in special education. I’ve realized my passion in education really lies in one-on-one experiences with kids. I love working with the kids whose unique behavior challenges or circumstances don’t allow them to thrive in typical classrooms. It’s really tough when you see a 12- or 13-year-old who’s all but given up because he’s learned over and over that he doesn’t fit in a normal classroom. The reality is, there are a lot of kids out there for whom the system just isn’t working.

Photo: Sarah Lee and Erica Yamamoto lead Higher Achievement students in a tour of the University's campus.