Ciana Young, '17

June 26, 2017
Bonner Scholar crosses the privilege line through her community service

When students from a Northside Richmond public middle school visited the University of Richmond in late March, a boy asked the four Admissions panelists—all Richmond Public Schools graduates attending UR—to describe their most interesting college experience.

One panelist talked about his experience studying abroad in Morocco. Another mentioned a class trip she took to Vancouver, British Columbia.

“Volunteering as a reading assistant at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School,” Ciana Young, ’17, stated confidently.

Young could have named many other experiences, such as several class trips to New York City or a spring-break service trip to Detroit with the SEEDS Project. Instead, she pointed to a one-semester service-learning experience as a reading assistant at a Northside Richmond elementary school located only a few miles from her home in the city’s Church Hill neighborhood.

This experience stood out, she later explained, not because of what the children learned from her, but for what she learned about herself.

“I realized that although I grew up in poverty, I came from a background of privilege,” Young said. “Even when we were homeless, school was never secondary. My privilege was to have access to a quality learning environment early on, to have been taught to love learning for the sake of learning, and to have my education remain a priority for my mother.

“Although I did not change a child’s life forever by volunteering at Overby-Sheppard, I gained a new understanding of my story and my passion for education.”

Young grew up in a low-income, single-parent household. After arriving in Richmond in 2007, Young and her family lived in a homeless shelter for a year-and-a-half before eventually moving to Church Hill.

The Bonner Scholars Program drew her to the University of Richmond, because she saw it as an opportunity to give back to her community, she said. Shortly after arriving on campus, Young and other Bonner Scholars participated in a city tour led by the Rev. Ben Campbell, one of Richmond’s preeminent historians and social-justice advocates.

“That tour shaped how I engaged in the city during my first year,” Young said. “I realized there was power in the meeting of my lives. I wasn’t leaving my community simply by not occupying the space [in my neighborhood] anymore. My education at UR complemented my lived experience and didn’t erase it.”

In her first year, Young, who said she cares deeply about preventing child sexual abuse, chose Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN) as her Bonner Scholars service site. Although SCAN’s mission resonated with her, Young described her office work as feeling “abstract” at times. She enjoyed days when she volunteered directly with the children.

Young experienced her first community-based-learning class when she enrolled in Dr. Olivier Delers’ Reading to Live course through the Sophomore Scholars in Residence Program. She and her classmates studied how literature both reflects and informs the lived experience.

To fulfill the course’s service-learning requirement, Young researched best practices for teaching reading to emerging readers before volunteering as a reading assistant at Overby-Sheppard, a public elementary school serving many low-income students.

“I thought it would be simple and that I could make a difference,” Young said. “I was quickly proven wrong. The students were very dismissive of their capabilities. They would say, ‘I’m so stupid.’

“I brought a unique perspective to my volunteering because I came from the same community as many of these kids. I faced many of the same barriers and thought I could inspire them to overcome these barriers.”

By her senior year, Young, who majored in American studies and history and minored in women, gender, and sexuality studies (WGSS), was serving as a student leader of the Bonner Scholars Program. In March, UR’s Westhampton College honored her with the 2017 Jane Stockman Award in recognition of her contributions to the Richmond community both on and off campus.

As she prepared for her May graduation and pondered a possible career in the nonprofit sector, Young reflected on her years of service as a Bonner Scholar.

“I’ve spent four years trying to reconcile what it means to cross the privilege line—going from someone who needs a lot of services to someone who provides a lot of the services,” she said.

“The Bonner Scholars Program taught me to question. And it taught me that civic duty means making investments in the communities around you, through your money, time, passion, and uncomfortableness.”