For St. Louis native and Drake student Jamie Rusan, the first year of college has been especially rigorous. Not only is he taking a full load of credits, but he’s a member of Drake’s AmeriCorps partnership program, a service learning experience called the Engaged Citizen Corps [ECC].
Rusan did plenty of volunteer work in high school, so when he was searching for the perfect college, he made sure to include community service opportunities in his research. Once he stumbled upon Drake and the ECC, he was pretty much sold. He knew service work would enrich what would be an otherwise standard college experience.
AmeriCorps at-large is a network of service programs nationwide, and the ECC is just a small branch of this huge tree of a network. These programs seek to foster civic engagement between individuals and their communities, and this can take form in anything from fighting poverty to sustaining national parks to Rusan’s new specialty: mentoring youth.
Rusan’s partner organization for his work with the ECC is the Children and Family Urban Movement, also known as CFUM. The goal of the organization is to create a supportive environment in which at-risk children and families can learn about how to attain educational success, maintain healthy living styles, and actively engage in their own communities.
Rusan’s main interest, however, is the children.
“There’s not enough advocates for them to [say], ‘You can go off to college and do whatever you want with your life,’” Rusan said. “I feel as though a lot of the leaders and a lot of the people who are doing well around them are Caucasian. A lot of them aren’t from minority groups, so it’s really hard for them to connect.”
To remedy this, Rusan has spent his entire first year of college working as an advocate for these young children. To become an official AmeriCorps member, the minimum time commitment is three months, and he’s already surpassed this mark. He spends most of his time with youth in grades kindergarten through second, but he also helps with middle schoolers.
Rusan, who describes himself as “a little kid at heart,” seems to fit in pretty well with his age group of choice.
“I just appreciate how kids are very curious about things, they’re very optimistic,” Rusan said. “It’s very important to shape the way that they look out at the world. I think I’ve had a very great support system, and that’s something I want to give to children. Children are the future of the United States—of the world—so it’s important to shape them into great human beings.”
He does this by playing games, helping dole out meals, and organizing special activities. To fulfill a requirement of Drake’s ECC, he also kick-started a new line of programming called The Grit Project, an interactive program meant to emphasize perseverance and tenacity no matter what life brings.
The idea for the project was brought to him by Hannah Olson, CFUM’s program director. Olson and Rusan noticed that the traditional schooling system tends to emphasize the teaching of personal conduct—things like manners, how to be polite, and how to show respect. While important, they found that this focus doesn’t teach children how to face obstacles that may get in the way of personal goals. A start, Rusan believes, is teaching young children how to be “gritty.”
Rusan is pretty gritty himself. He’s a pre-pharmacy major, and his post-grad plan is to enroll in a graduate program and become certified in nuclear pharmacy. His Plan B is to attain his PharmD then go to law school to become a patent attorney.
For now, though, the ECC is keeping him occupied. Rusan, along with his fellow first-year ECC members, meets weekly with Program Coordinator Amanda Martin to talk about the progress made at each student’s work site. All the members take a sociology class together called Social Problems, as well.
Rusan’s learned quite a bit from his experiences at CFUM. Most prominently, he’s learned to be patient—a crucial virtue when working with young children. He’s also learned the importance of a team, and he finds great value in the one he’s created at CFUM.
“CFUM really values their members,” Rusan said. “I think working with them made me realize that volunteers are definitely needed in order to get a lot of things done, because they don’t have a bunch of staff members. When church organizations come in or youth centers come in to help out, it really shows that a team is very vital.”
Rusan’s experiences with CFUM have been good enough to make him want to return as a volunteer in the fall of 2018—the start of his sophomore year at Drake. The ECC curriculum will be over by then, but CFUM and AmeriCorps has Rusan hooked on service learning.
“Being there gives me more of a purpose,” Rusan said. “Everything that I do, I need to have a purpose in it. Being here at Drake, one of my main purposes is to support my family. But being at CFUM, I have a family there, too. It’s where I find my source of grit—through those kids … Being there for them is the best part of being a part of the ECC program.”
For those interested in donating time to CFUM, you can get into contact with the organization here. Additionally, click the following links to find out more about getting involved with AmeriCorps or learning about Drake’s ECC program.