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NIU Service Leaders program connects first-generation students to the community

February 28, 2018

Since the creation of the NIU Service Leaders program, the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning (OSEEL) has had three cohorts of diverse and passionate NIU students making a difference in DeKalb County. NIU Service Leaders is a work-study service-learning program. It connects first-generation college students with local schools or youth organizations in civic engagement activities and programs for one academic year.

Sara Finnigan, the site supervisor for the Center for P-20 Engagement explains the wonderful experiences she has had with NIU Service Leaders.

“The NIU Service Leaders have been an incredible addition to our office here at NIU,” says Finnigan. “The students bring a strong sense of service with them which helps our office to put on great events for the community. I absolutely love working with the students and giving them hands-on and engaged-learning experiences.”

NIU Service Leaders are matched with a community site based on the site’s commitment needs in addition to the student’s interests and availability. Keagan Cornier is a junior majoring in Spanish language and literature. With a career aspiration to be a high school teacher, he was matched with Sycamore High School. Cornier enjoys tutoring students on their Spanish and math homework.

“When a student comes to me totally lost on what is going on in a class, generally math, they tell me ‘it doesn’t make any sense’ or ‘it’s too hard’,” says Cornier. “The great part of this interaction is after I have explained it, a light bulb goes off in their head and they realize they can do it. This is why I want to be a teacher—to influence kids’ lives and make as positive an impact as possible.”

One of the learning objectives of the program is to understand community issues and ways that they could be addressed by students now and in their future career.

Kristen Lookingland tutoring youth

Kristen Lookingland is in her second year at NIU, majoring in secondary English education. She tutors at the Jerry L. John Literacy Clinic which provides reading support services for K-12 youth. In her time working there, she has noticed education disparity as a community issue that affects literacy proficiency.

“This can be credited to social issues such as poverty and crime,” Lookingland says.

“Noticing these issues have helped me to understand why some students may struggle more than others, and I have learned that not every child is given the same opportunities, which may affect them academically. This understanding has motivated me to work hard with each student to ensure that their education is not compromised.”

The NIU Service Leaders program serves to provide community sites with extra hands to help out, but this program also benefits the participants as well. Dianna Birr is a sophomore majoring in special education. Birr is excited about the doors the program has opened for her.

“The NIU Service Leaders Program allowed me to solidify my plans of becoming a teacher as well as provided me with the opportunity to network with current professionals in the field of education,” says Birr. “I was offered the opportunity to student teach under the special education teacher at my site. The program taught me how to network and gave me the opportunity to do so. Now I will be student teaching at the school in the fall, which will, in turn, allow me to create more opportunities for the future.”

Students finish the program as better leaders, better mentors and more civically-minded individuals. Students completing the program have gone on to be peer mentors in other programs, community advisors, City Year tutors and more.

If you are interested to learn more about the program visit Students interested in participating during the 2018-19 academic year should apply by Sunday, March 18.