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Motivation and empathy are key to serving youth

This column appeared in Northfield News on July 14, 2022.

Man wearing a hat and red shirtGraduating from college into the waiting arms of a pandemic threw a wrench into my future planning, but the opportunity to serve in AmeriCorps has been a significant silver lining. My two years as a Promise Fellow helped me grow substantially as a person and a professional. It’s been an opportunity to work with students, faculty, and administrators, gaining a rare look into the school system from multiple angles.

During my service at the Northfield Community College Collaborative (2020-21) and at my old high school (2021-22), I built relationships with all kinds of people and helped problem-solve everything from personal issues and arguments to overdue assignments. One core part of Promise Fellow work is getting students to set and achieve their own goals without doing their work for them. That skillset is one that I’ve come to value most. Motivation and time management are chronic obstacles to success in the Internet era. Helping students work past that and succeed in spite of it is one of the great joys of the position and is also extremely useful on a personal level.

As a Promise Fellow, I received an education in professionalism that will serve me in my future career. I learned to navigate conflicts that naturally arise where people are around each other every day, and I tried to help students live up to their goals as best they could. I also learned to accept that you can’t force someone to do more than they want to do, and that everyone works under different circumstances.

I saw again and again that you have to ask students what they want out of school before you can ask them to do anything–sometimes they want an A, sometimes they just want to pass physics. Not one of them, in my entire term of service, was stupid, or lazy. There’s not one of them that, if they’d put their minds to it, couldn’t have done every assignment. But the amount of time, energy, and motivation involved in that task is enormous, and most students can’t afford to focus it all on school. I’d say the most important thing I gained during my term of service was understanding that motivation and that empathy. High school is tougher than adult life, sometimes. It was my honor to help students through some of it, and I’d recommend that honor to anyone with the time and inclination.

– Sebastian Lawler is a 2016 graduate of Northfield High School and a 2020 graduate of Kalamazoo College. He will complete his AmeriCorps service at the end of July. This column was submitted via Health Community Initiative.

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