Within the living-learning community of the Honors Residential College at East Ambler Johnston Hall, Virginia Tech students are cultivating a new service-learning program. The program, through which students volunteer in Head Start preschool classrooms, is proving to have a broad impact on a community in need.

When honors residential college students and faculty principals wanted to expand their community service efforts, they did not look for opportunities that already existed close to Virginia Tech. Instead, they partnered with VT Engage: The Community Learning Collaborative to survey the community beyond Blacksburg and sought out the program that needed them the most.

“We wanted to offer students in the residential college a real chance to engage in the local community,” said Robert Stephens, faculty principal at the honors residential college. “We wanted to create a way to serve communities that really have a need, and in this case it’s Giles County.”

The Head Start program in Giles County is a federally funded preschool program through New River Community Action Inc. Head Start provides support to underserved and underrepresented areas, giving children ages three to five a variety of experiences to help them develop socially, intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Head Start regards the parent as the most important teacher in a child’s life and involves parents as much as possible in every aspect of the program.

Honors residential college students have been volunteering in Giles County Head Start classrooms since the spring semester last year. Currently, there are two classrooms in Pearisburg and one in Narrows. Each classroom has two teachers leading 20 children. With over 20 University Honors students now coming to the classrooms each week, the students split into groups so that volunteers are helping in the classrooms every day of the week. Their presence brings the child-to-adult ratio from 10-to-1 all the way down to 5-to-1.

“The fact that we were able to lower the student-to-teacher ratio so much really made an impact and I could see that the children and teachers were both grateful,” said Catie Cheek of Millington, Md., a senior majoring in industrial design in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Cheek volunteered in Head Start classrooms last spring.

“Some children need more one-on-one attention than others, and it is hard to give them that needed attention when there are so many children and so few teachers,” she added. Cheek also noted that when children in need received more individual attention, their moods lifted and their social interactions increased throughout the day.

The children quickly took to Virginia Tech students, even remembering which students were coming on each day of the week.

Anne Faris, an education specialist for the New River Community Action Inc. Head Start program, said, “The children have had wonderful experiences of having a young adult model behavior for them. They have had male role models in their lives. They have had someone who demonstrates to them that someone other than their teachers and family really does care about their interests, their well-being, and their futures.”

The student volunteers seek not only to assist teachers, but also to give the children opportunities not normally afforded to them. They have taken learning beyond the classroom by developing projects and sharing their interests and talents with the children. One group built garden beds to show children how plants grow. Cheek shared her love of dance by giving the children a ballet lesson.

Faris describes the importance of such exposure to new concepts and interests at their impressionable age as immeasurable. Following Cheek’s dance class, the children spent days practicing their ballet moves.

In addition to the students who volunteer directly in the classrooms, another 20 students serve the Head Start program through a literacy program and a weekend activities program. Even larger groups take part in occasional volunteer opportunities to work at the centers through programs like the Big Event.

Though the focus of the partnership is to benefit Head Start children, Virginia Tech students have found the opportunity to be an integral, life-changing part of their university experience. Students at Virginia Tech come from many different backgrounds. Whether students see the struggle to find educational resources for children in rural communities as familiar or eye-opening, they all find themselves deeply invested in the program.

Jake Grohs, associate director for student engagement at VT Engage, remembered a time when the volunteers had difficulty finding transportation through the university. Virginia Tech students were supposed to help supervise a trip to the pumpkin patch that day. Rather than give up, the group of students filled their own fuel tanks and used their own vehicles to spend the day with the children.

“This is a great way for them to remember that they’re part of a bigger, broader community,” Grohs said of the students. “It’s important that Head Start sees us, and that the community sees us, as a neighbor and resource throughout the long haul as well.”



This article was written by Kimberly Bassler. The photos are by Reid Jason Griffler of Gaithersburg, Md., a senior double majoring in communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and psychology in the College of Science.

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