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This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
While many people have experienced a life-changing moment, Bentley National Service Scholars Tara Meehan ’09 and Jenna Nakamura ’10 had a life-changing year.
From September 2009 to June 2010, the pair took a break from Bentley for an education of a different kind, at elementary schools in Louisiana and Florida. Their journeys were part of the “give a year” program, launched in 2008 by Bentley and national youth service organization City Year. As City Year corps members, recipients complete a year of full-time service and receive scholarship support and subsequent internship opportunities.
“After seeing the shortfalls of the public education system firsthand in high school, I find the national dropout crisis to be a pressing issue in the United States,” says Nakamura, a native of Kaneohe, Hawaii. “Committing a year of service is my way of taking action instead of just talking about it.”
Nakamura headed to Progress Elementary School in Baton Rouge, La. She tutored students in math and literacy, coordinated afterschool programs, created service projects, and organized leadership development days. Her role as service and events coordinator also included rallying 100-plus volunteers to build benches, paint murals, and landscape at the school.
The “give a year” program was a natural choice for Nakamura. Her older sister was a role model, prompting Nakamura to volunteer for the YWCA and, later, to revive her high school’s service-based Key Club.
Meehan’s service year involved math and reading support at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, Fla. She dedicated Saturdays to two City Year initiatives: the Young Heroes leadership development program for sixth- to eighth-graders and the Starfish afterschool program.
Her inspiration to give stems from the December 2007 death of a cousin and godson, who lost his battle with infant acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 6 months old.
“I felt like I had so much energy and love stored up, and there was a hole in my heart,” Meehan recalls. “I chose to serve because I didn’t have the chance to make a difference in his life, and wanted to give other children opportunities that he didn’t have.”
Meehan and Nakamura agree that the work was often exhausting, but student accomplishments made the effort worthwhile. Both are hard-pressed to name just one student who inspired them, but each had “starfish” – City Year’s designation for a student who encourages corps members during their service.
“In times of struggle, the kids were my therapy,” says Meehan, who was particularly motivated by a third-grade boy whose unruly behavior turned more generous and respectful. “Even more incredible is that these improvements carried over to his classmates. He held other students accountable for their behavior, and expected them to use their manners as well.”
Nakamura describes a third-grade girl who was inclined to shut down in the face of challenging school work.
“I remember the first time that something I taught her actually clicked,” says Nakamura. “She had the biggest smile on her face and started jumping up and down. She asked for extra homework, and for the first time, I saw her enjoy learning.”
Despite assignments that unfolded in different states, Meehan and Nakamura found common threads in their experience. Among them, lessons in diversity.
A native of Canton, Mass., Meehan was part of a City Year team that hailed from Miami, New York, Louisiana, New Jersey and Ohio. “My main challenges were working with such a diverse group of people – in regard to demographics such as age, gender, culture and educational background – and balancing my time. We worked long hours, and it became important to learn how to manage my time and know when to call it a day.”
Her Bentley education was a boon. “I was able to see the big picture and work well with details,” says Meehan, a Bentley MBA candidate with a BS in Management. “If our team leader was unable to be with us, I became the person making sure tasks were accomplished.”
Nakamura’s City Year team was supportive and challenging at the same time.
“Diversity goes beyond what you look like or where you come from,” she says of team members’ ideals, personalities and leadership styles. “As dissimilar as we were, we learned to rely on each other. You have to be able to trust and depend on your team to get through some of the rough days in the schools.”
It’s a lesson she takes to heart. “I learned about myself, my leadership style, and how it affects those I work with.”
The year of service was an empowering opportunity for Meehan and Nakamura to make change – not only for the children but for themselves.
An Economics-Finance major, Nakamura identified new career opportunities. “I am much more interested in social enterprises and finding ways to use my academic studies to help others, particularly in microfinance.”
Meehan gained an appreciation for different ways of thinking. “I started with an all-business mentality, but ended up learning from people with a more artistic style. Together, we made great things happen.”
Her “kids,” as she calls them, changed her life. “It’s been healing. I was so shocked when I saw a photo of myself with some of the children. I look truly, truly happy.”
Adds Nakamura: “If I can make an impact on a student’s life, it’s more than worth one year of mine.”
Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.