Profiles in mentoring: Melissa Levy on the importance of education in understanding diverse life experiences

Interviewed by Karina DeAndrade

Chronicle (C): Can you tell us a little about your background and the research you are currently working on?

Dr. Melissa Levy (ML): My professional start as a middle school teacher in the public schools piqued my interest in deepening my understanding of our educational system, and led me to pursue graduate study in Social Foundations of Education at the University of Virginia (UVA). While working on my doctorate degree, I had the opportunity to both work with and conduct research with UVA’s Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP), a mentoring program that matches middle school girls with college women. As a middle school band director, I taught middle school students; as program director with American University Hillel, I worked with college students. YWLP, then, melded my professional work experiences unexpectedly well. During my tenure in a YWLP staff position, and because of my youth programing experience, I worked with faculty to propose a new major at UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development entitled Youth and Social Innovation (YSI). In 2014, I transitioned into a faculty position with YSI.

My current research, supported by UVA’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), explores how, if at all, a unit on race, racism, and White Supremacy supports both White students and students of color in their growth relevant to understanding these topics, and in their processing of experiences relevant to these topics. Students’ understanding of their relationship to these topics as they venture into the world to work with youth will impact our collective way forward in dealing with the legacy of racism in our communities.

C: Regarding your service learning courses, what have been some methods for effectively and ethically building student-community partnerships?

ML: Through course activities, students explore their own identities and the assumptions they carry with them. They tackle readings that help them see different perspectives and to be able to recognize that some of the things they know to be true are not universally true, but instead assumptions embedded in the cultures of their families and other circles they have inhabited. We also focus on shifting frameworks from ‘I’m going to come in and fix your problems’ to working in partnership with others who operate in the settings where they hope to work.

C: What are some factors to be mindful/cautious about when building student-community partnerships with youth?

ML: Know that you might not get the feedback that you were wanting or expecting from the youth that you are working with. Students need to be conscious of this reality and know that consistently showing up and being fully present is really important, even if they are not getting the signs they were expecting to assure them of their value to the youth. Another challenge is helping college students recognize that they are the adults in these interactions. For instance, if they try to communicate with their protégé and their protégé does not respond, they need to continue to persist in showing their protégé attention rather than retreat to nurse hurt feelings. While we are looking for this relationship to be a mutual one in which mentor and protégé are learning from each other, the college student is the adult and carries the greater responsibility in the relationship. It is not the same as a friendship with a peer. We remind the college students that the youth they are working with are in a different developmental stage. Another truism of mentoring is that it is not something the college students are doing to youth, but instead is a collaborative effort that they are working on together.

C: What are some benefits or some challenges/limitations faced when teaching a service learning course?

ML: A benefit is that it is really exciting for the students to be able to do hands-on work. They get to apply what they are learning and engage in an iterative process of reading and discussing and learning in class, and then in the same week actually interact with youth and practice what they are learning about. It is an effective way to learn and adds a level of meaning to students’ learning.

A challenge is the administrative side of service learning. Teaching a class without a community connection is more straight-forward than one that involves collaborating with people who are outside of the university. There is simply much more to coordinate. Also, there are heightened stakes when students in your course need to do the work of your course to make sure their contributions to the community are positive. I must convey to students the increased importance of their participation and attendance in a service-learning course.