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Agent of Social Change

Alumnus aims to inspire students to make a difference.

by Sara LaJeunesse (November 2011)


Group-Coachs-Corner.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Kristin Meyer ’02 Sec Ed always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t until she took Jacqueline Edmondson’s “Teaching Reading in the Elementary School” class that she realized being a teacher could make her an agent for social change.

Edmondson, the associate dean of undergraduate and graduate studies in the College of Education, had given Meyer’s class an assignment in which she asked the students to describe the type of teacher they hoped to become based on a selection of four different teaching philosophies. “It turned out that I wanted to promote social change,” said Meyer. “That wasn’t something I had ever thought of doing before.”

makingbubblesfloatonliquidnitrogen.jpgWhile at Penn State, Meyer also worked with low-income children from nearby communities Lewistown and Tyrone.

“I think Dr. Edmondson’s class helped shape my philosophy that I wanted to work with students from diverse, low-income backgrounds, provide them with the same opportunities enjoyed by middle-class Americans, and inspire them to go to college and return to their communities as agents of social change,” she said.

WorldHabitatDayBanner.jpgToday, Meyer is putting the skills she acquired at Penn State into practice as a kindergarten teacher at Burnley-Moran Elementary School, a Charlottesville, Va., Title I school (a school with a high percentage of students from low-income families). “About 67 percent of my class qualifies for free and reduced price school meals, and about 33 percent speak English as a second language,” she said. “So I get to teach children who have lots of needs, but who live in a community with lots of resources to help them, as Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia.”

One of the ways Meyer is helping students at her school is by exposing them to the idea of attending college. Last year, she co-organized a field trip to the University of Virginia (UVA) for a group of high-achieving third- and fourth-grade students who would be either first-generation college students or who would face income challenges in attending college.

“Our students met with college students from UVA who also were first-generation college students and asked them a variety of questions, such as how to schedule classes, what happens if you don’t go to class, and what times are best for classes,” said Meyer. “Our students also visited the special collections library for a scavenger hunt, took a tour of campus, and listened to band members play UVA fight songs. Our goal was to show the students how much fun college is, to give them an opportunity to see campus, and to let them ask questions of other students who share similar backgrounds. Most college students know from before they can remember that they will go to college. It is as natural for them as knowing that they will get a driver’s license. I want all children to feel that way.”

To teach her students that they can make a difference, Meyer leads “Little Hands, Big Difference,” a community-service club she helped create in which students take on various community-service projects. Last year, the children made and sold crafts and then gave the proceeds to Village Health Works, a health facility in Burundi, Africa. This year, they are making cat toys and dog treats for the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, cleaning up the school’s playground, and cleaning up a nearby trail. “I want the children to see the impact they can have on their immediate community regardless of whether or not they have money to donate to a fundraising drive,” she said.

Outside the classroom, Meyer has worked closely with two public housing communities in Charlottesville to improve their educational opportunities, and she participates in JumpStart’s Read for the Record, a program that aims to raise awareness about pre-K and early childhood literacy. In addition, she is a “big sister” with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, and she is applying to become a foster parent. “We have many, many children in our country who need support in terms of foster care and adoption, and I want to do my part to help one child have a safe and comfortable home and family to grow up in,” she said.

Meyer said that she never would have realized the powerful role she could play as an agent of social change, both in the classroom and out, without the experiences she had at as a student at Penn State, particularly in Edmondson’s class. She remarked, “I learned that I can teach children that they can make a difference, that they can change the world.”