New Paltz Gives Another Cheer for City Year

A service program that places 17 to 24-year-olds in under-performing schools across the country is drawing more New Paltz students back to their communities.

New Paltz was one of the top 10 feeder schools nationally for recruits to the City Year program, with a total of 20 New Paltz alumni and students taking part in this year’s group of recruits.

City Year teams of 12 corps members work with 60 students at inner city elementary or middle schools.

Recruits, known as corps members, work for a year mentoring students one-on-one during class time or in after school activities in an attempt to boost student performance before high school and prevent dropouts.

Corps members’ characteristic crimson bomber jackets make them instantly recognizable in the communities they serve in, with cries of ‘Hey, City Year!’ a common greeting as they walk through the streets around their schools.

Kaychell English, a Black Studies and psychology major, graduated last year and quickly transitioned to being a City Year team leader. She oversees and coordinates the work of the 12 corps members assigned to I.S. 204 in Astoria, Queens.

City Year’s focus on working with inner city youth is inspired English to apply for the program.

“I came from the Bronx and came from a public school,” English said. “I knew that I had to go back and help out.”

Erica Wagner, the college’s Service Learning Coordinator, says that she first met City Year recruiters at a non-profit job fair at Columbia University several years ago.

“A strong connection has been built over the last three years,” Wagner said. “Recruiters are coming to campus more, attending job fairs and building that relationship.”

Part of what’s driving New Paltz’s success as a City Year feeder school may be attributed to a recruitment initiative launched in 2010 and strong bonds with key staff members.

“A larger component is Erica Wagner and Christine Featherson in EOP – champions that exist on that campus who encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Emmanuel Sterling, Northeast director of recruiting for City Year.

Fourth-year sociology major, Deborah Walnicki, who served as a corps member in New York City right after high school, became the first ever campus recruitment ambassador nationally during her sophomore year at New Paltz.

“My main jobs were flyering, talking to potential interested corps members, tabling outside of the Career Resource Center and wearing the distinct red jacket a few days every month,” Walnicki said.

Though her outreach focused mainly on second and and third-year students that year, Walnicki said she believes some of those students began applying for and joining City Year in their senior year, accounting for this year’s large number of recruits.

English said that her leadership on the Student Senate, her work with the Oasis Crisis Center and as a Student Activity Manager helped to prepare her for her role at City Year.

Both Walnicki and English said their City Year experience changed their outlook on the nation’s educational system.

“Part of it was realizing that by becoming a teacher I would become a cog in an inefficient system that wasn’t necessarily helping anyone,” said Walnicki. “Social justice would help people at the macro level rather than be at the whims of budget cuts and over worked staff.”

English said she plans to pursue a career in social work.

“I don’t see myself being a teacher, but I do see myself as a social worker within a school,” said English. “Kids need more than just a teacher, they need someone to help mediate situations and help them through daily struggles.”

A typical work week for corps members can average 60 or 70 hours a week with 12 to 13 hour days, according to Wagner.

“You really have to have the passion for it and City Year does a very good job of finding the students who have the passion for it,” Wagner said.

Corps members are eligible for a living stipend and a $5,550 award after completing their year of service that can be used for college, graduate school or student loans.

“For people looking into City Year, expect to need patience,” said English. “Be prepared to be part of a culture and organization that values culture and uniform. Be ready to work long hours – know something about inner city youth who on a daily basis fight with crime and drugs –  and sometimes bring that into school.”