January 31, 2020

From mentee to mentor: An emerging social changemaker on lessons learned in the field

A former LearnServe fellow on how the nonprofit prepared her to tackle problem-solving for social good.

Julia Weckstein was a LearnServe fellow in 2016. Most recently, she spent a gap year serving as a 4th-grade mentor for the City Year Philadelphia Program.

Over the past five years, I have been lucky enough to work and volunteer with an organization called LearnServe International, which teaches students to be social activists and entrepreneurs within their communities and on a global scale. I started as a Fellow, then traveled to Paraguay with LearnServe Abroad, interned in the Seeding Social Innovation program, and finally was an intern for the Zambia Abroad program.

LearnServe has been a huge part of my life, particularly in my transition from high school to becoming a young adult. I first discovered LearnServe Sophomore year of high school. At that point in my life, I was old enough to be aware of many of the issues in our world. I would walk past homeless people on a daily basis, read about climate change, and struggled with my own mental health. As a teenager, learning about these issues in school and experiencing some of them firsthand, a lot of emotions came up—sadness, anger, anxiety—but mostly I felt defeated.

What could I as a 15-year-old do? Realistically, I lacked many of the skills to fully understand these issues let alone do anything about them. LearnServe completely changed that for me. I started as a Fellow where I learned to find root causes of problems by looking at issues from the perspectives of those experiencing them. I focused on food waste as a solution to hunger within the homeless population.

Through my experience in the Paraguay Abroad program I learned perseverance. I struggled with not being able to communicate and connect with our partners in Paraguay. But my trip leaders encouraged me to work through these feelings and showed me that it was possible to gain knowledge and lessons through a difficult experience.

Through my internship in the Seeding Social Innovation program, I learned so much about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into running a nonprofit. As a student, you only see the result of hours of work, planning, and meetings. It was amazing to see all that went into the day-to-day of the LearnServe team. I learned so many different skills that are necessary to be a productive adult, and that are not taught in school. I learned to write professional emails, give speeches, and advocate for myself and others.

In my most recent position with LearnServe, I was an intern for the Abroad program. I traveled to Zambia with and served as a mentor for ten high school students. While in Zambia, I assisted in teaching art, literacy, math, and HIV/AIDS education. Through this experience I discovered my passion for mentoring and teaching kids.

All of the knowledge and skills I gained through my many experiences with LearnServe culminated in the gap year program I served in after high school. After returning from LearnServe Zambia I had a renewed sense that I was meant to work with students. I then began the most difficult and rewarding year of my life. I spent the next year mentoring at a school in Philadelphia. I would not have made it through my year at City Year without the knowledge, perseverance, and skills I gained from my experiences at LearnServe. I was working with students on a daily basis who were years behind with school and were also dealing with significant family problems. I had a group of students I tutored in literacy, a group in which we worked on social-emotional learning, and I was also a coordinator for the after-school program.

Through LearnSeve and my knowledge of human-centered design, I knew that in order to be a mentor and help students solve problems, I needed to first gain the student’s trust. I began with having weekly check-in lunches with my students where we discussed their weekends, classes, and anything else going on in their lives. I knew I had to be a consistent presence in the students’ lives to gain their trust, and after months of these seemingly inconsequential lunches, students began to come to me with issues they were experiencing with friends, at home, in classes. This was the first time I truly felt like a mentor and knew that I could make a difference in someone else’s life.

I hope to bring the LearnServe passion and commitment to every opportunity life throws at me. LearnServe gave me the skills to be a successful adult, mentor, and changemaker, and I hope one day every student is lucky enough to participate in a program like this.

Julia Weckstein

Julia Weckstein

Julia Weckstein was a LearnServe fellow in 2016. She traveled to Paraguay with the abroad program in 2017, interned in the Seeding Social Innovation program in 2017, and traveled to Zambia as an intern for the abroad program in 2018. She then spent a gap year serving as a 4th-grade mentor for the City Year Philadelphia Program.
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