Elle Carabetta, ’10, chose the University of Richmond based on its commitment to community engagement. She has not been disappointed.

The political science major from Boston joined Build It, the University’s largest civic-engagement initiative, her first year on campus. Build It participants offer tutoring, mentoring, and administrative support to nonprofits and public schools in an inner-city neighborhood in Northside Richmond.

Carabetta began serving as a lunchtime reader at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School and later served as a classroom aide. Despite a demanding schedule, which included serving as president of the Westhampton Student Government Association and vice president of philanthropy of the Pi Beta Phi Sorority during her senior year, she remained a Build It volunteer at Overby-Sheppard through all four years of college. The experience significantly influenced her career trajectory, Carabetta said.

Carabetta came to college intending to pursue a career with a lobbying firm. But after two internships in Washington, D.C., with lobbying firms — one while still in high school and the other after her sophomore year in college — Carabetta changed course.

Two political science courses — one taught by Dr. Jennifer Erkulwater with a service-learning component and the other a capstone course taught by Dr. Rick Mayes — helped Carabetta reflect on her service at Overby-Sheppard and led her to pursue a career in education policy.

“I began to understand the connections between what I was learning in the classroom and what I wanted to do outside the classroom,” Carabetta said. “Dr. Mayes taught us to look at the people behind the statistics. Failing test scores reflect kids with real-life problems.”

She learned to reexamine some of her own preconceptions. “I was naïve when I started volunteering at Overby-Sheppard,” Carabetta said. “I thought maybe the kids weren’t motivated enough. Now I know that kids can’t learn at the level we expect them to learn if we don’t give them the necessary resources.

“For example, I was asked to work with a girl who had been goofing off and falling behind in school. I spent one afternoon with her and realized that she just needed glasses. The teachers can’t always identify this type of problem because they are so overwhelmed with managing large classrooms.

“The greatest challenge for many of these kids is all the distractions in their lives. Early on I worked with a child who excitedly told me his dad was coming back. I thought he was coming back from a business trip, but he was coming back from jail.”

These kinds of insights will help Carabetta when she becomes a DC Teaching Fellow following her graduation in May 2010. The highly competitive DC Teaching Fellows program recruits people from all backgrounds to become teachers in the most challenging public schools in the nation’s capital.

Carabetta chose DC Teaching Fellows because she wanted to work in Washington, where she can monitor education policy closely. Ultimately, she plans to pursue a career in education policy with a focus on charter schools. But first, she will dedicate herself fully to the children in her classroom.

“I think charter schools are the best thing to happen to American education in years,” Carabetta said, “but no one will listen to my ideas on education policy unless I have a few years experience in the classroom under my belt. As a classroom teacher I want my kids to see me as an advocate for them, someone who wants them to do well. It’s important to develop mutual trust.”

Carabetta credits her Build It service and her political science courses for her commitment to education policy. “I learned that in order to bridge the gap between reality and public policy you have to act with compassion and empathy. At the end of the day, we can make positive change only if we act with empathy.”