Through the SummerTrek Changemakers program, 10 GW students helped D.C. middle school students turn the issues they are passionate about into virtual advocacy campaigns.
By Briahnna Brown
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted most activities to the virtual space, and for many George Washington University students, that includes volunteer work with children.
Nikki Vivekanandan, a junior studying nutrition science in the Milken Institute School of Public Health, previously volunteered with GWTeach, a STEM education program. When she learned about an opportunity to safely continue volunteering with kids this summer, Ms. Vivekanandan said she was excited to take advantage of it.
Through a partnership with Alice Deal Middle School, the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service was able to offer GW students the opportunity to support D.C. children interested in addressing community issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, racism and climate change. In the SummerTrek Changemakers Program, students like Ms. Vivekanandan were able to facilitate the middle schoolers’ research and advocacy projects throughout July with virtual Zoom sessions twice a week.
Ms. Vivekanandan said that because the pandemic has hit everyone in different ways, she wanted to work with kids who were interested in social changemaking around the pandemic.
With the COVID-19 project, Ms. Vivekanandan’s group of middle schoolers put together a presentation on myths vs. facts around the virus. Ms. Vivekanandan said that the students learned how to find research from credible sources and repackage that information in a way that is easily understandable, a set of skills that she hopes the middle schoolers build upon.
"I hope these kids know that they have the agency to make change," Ms. Vivekanandan said. "I really hope that these kids—and anyone who's interested in a program like this—knows that you can start at any age."
The group learning about racism focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and put together a website with resources such as fact sheets, educational movies and petitions for people to make a difference in their communities. Jumpstart@GW volunteers Amaeka Effiong, a sophomore studying international affairs, and Britney Kagabo, a senior studying sociology and pre-med, said they gravitated toward this project because of its timeliness as well as their identities as Black women.
Ms. Kagabo said that the students in the group came from varying backgrounds but were all knowledgeable on the topic, which was helpful when the middle schoolers were working together to create the website. Ms. Effiong said that this experience helped her adjust to a virtual platform for teaching and learning, which she said was much easier than she expected.
"Even though the barriers seem a lot bigger when you think about doing this sort of project and having a camp on Zoom, it showed me that this stuff is possible and there's always a way to get around the different challenges we're facing right now," Ms. Effiong said.
For the climate change project, Farhana Alam, a junior studying neuroscience in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and a former GWTeach volunteer, facilitated the middle schoolers’ efforts to create a social media advocacy campaign on Instagram. The page includes information on the effects of climate change on the planet as well as steps people can take to mitigate their impact on the environment.
Ms. Alam said that throughout working on this project, the group of middle schoolers were enthusiastic about working together to make the digital campaign and learn about climate change along the way. Seeing their enthusiasm pushed Ms. Alam to be enthusiastic about it with them, she said.
"I know that during my middle school years, I would've appreciated if someone was able to hand me this opportunity where I could expand and do my own research projects," Ms. Alam said. "I'm just glad that GW was able to partner with Alice Deal Middle School in providing a platform for middle schoolers to feel that their voices are validated and heard."