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Service leadership class benefits foster children, ASU students

Service learning participants
December 11, 2013

Thanks to a new Arizona State University service leadership class, foster children in metropolitan Phoenix are benefiting from tutoring assistance provided by a group of ASU students. The tutoring is also positively impacting the ASU students, as they experience first-hand the benefits of civic engagement.

The project is a collaborative effort between Arizonans for Children, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children in foster care, and ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. New College is the core college on ASU’s West campus.

Before beginning their work with foster children, the students in New College’s Service Learning course completed orientation activities with Arizonans for Children staff, including Joanie Sirek, community outreach coordinator. Sirek also took part in facilitating the initial meetings between the ASU students and foster children.

“It was a profound experience witnessing the students interacting so gracefully with the foster children,” Sirek said. “I was especially struck by the introduction of one ASU student as she shared her dreams to pursue higher education and become an ambassador. The foster children followed suit by sharing their dreams. The foster children would soon move towards creating a plan of action to make their dreams a reality by focusing on achieving academic success with the assistance of ASU students.”

One of the students, Elena Zavalza, has gone from being worried about whether the children would accept her at the first meeting to being hired by Arizonans for Children. She recently successfully completed the interview process and now serves as a supervised visitation coordinator.

“I love coming to work, and I love the people I work with,” Zavalza said. “I work with the divorce family cases. These families have one parent who will be granted custody, but the other one can’t see the child unless supervised. I supervise visits, schedule visits and contact the judges to inform them about the case and send them reports. I am very happy here and have been reminded many times by my coworkers that I am doing a good job.”

New College history major James Cooper was motivated to assist foster children based on his experiences as a youth, seeing the difficulties faced by classmates who were foster children. “I figured that if I can provide some help for them in school, it will reduce their chances of becoming at-risk, and in a way, promote the Sun Devil cause,” he said.

Embedding ASU in the community is one of the goals of the Service Learning class, according to Anne Suzuki, New College’s assistant dean for enrollment management.

“The real-world experience the students gain complements students’ classroom learning as they broaden their knowledge and social awareness,” Suzuki said. “The students come to realize that they truly have the ability to impact people’s lives; at the same time, they help strengthen New College’s ties to the community.”

Suzuki and Nikki Bonnet, student recruitment/retention specialist senior, worked with Tatiauna Wasyln to develop the new course. Wasyln is an academic success coordinator in New College’s School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies.

For Cooper, one of his most memorable experiences as a tutor was the “aha moment” he was able to achieve when helping a young student with multiplying and dividing positive and negative numbers.

“After a few problems of explaining the formula to him, I saw the proverbial light bulb just switch on over his head, and he finished the rest of his homework without need of my assistance,” Cooper said. “That made me feel like I made a huge difference in his road to education.”

Arizonans for Children is willing to make use of the talents of ASU students in other ways besides tutoring in traditional academic subjects. When Sirek discovered that one of the New College students, Alyssa Rico, had a background as a dancer, she involved Rico in the organization’s dance program. Rico also was able to secure space in the Sun Devil Fitness Complex on the West campus for Sunday dance classes for foster children.

The new Service Learning course is part of an ongoing effort by New College faculty and staff to provide meaningful service activities to students. Last summer, New College formed the Service Learning Student Leadership (SL2) group to provide an organization and platform for students to volunteer and serve multiple organizations throughout the local community, helping those in need.

SL2 activities to-date include providing assistance to the Valley View Community Food Bank. The group also helped with a volunteer fair on the West campus in November and decorated the offices at Arizonans for Children for the organization’s holiday party. SL2 members attended the Arizona Summit on Volunteerism and Service Learning in December. Bonnet, who serves as the group’s coordinator, said that activities planned for spring include involvement with Habitat for Humanity and ASU Cares.