I've lived in Baltimore City for most of my life, but I never had as much access to the city as I do now that I attend UMBC, a university outside of the city limits.
Growing up, I went to "good" public schools in the city like Roland Park and Poly—but they still had their problems, like all the city's schools. I was part of a school system with rock-bottom test scores, low graduation rates, inadequate heat and air-conditioning, and a constantly changing leadership. Being a student of the Baltimore City Public Schools oftentimes felt like being completely powerless.
And sometimes, programs designed to help overcome these feelings and inadequacies did more harm than good.
As a result of their many issues, city schools rely on assistance from community partners to supplement their programs. Typically, this assistance comes from local universities in the form of programs that profess to enhance the education of the city's students.
Students from Towson University came in throughout my years in elementary school to teach science and math. Each time they came to my school, my real teachers would make a big deal about the "Towson Teachers" coming in to teach us, and I didn't understand why.
Even in my senior year of high school, I had a student teacher from UMBC who observed our physics class for a while before teaching our class on his own. It bothered me that my education was in the hands of an inexperienced college student, once again.
We were never asked if we wanted to have these students come in to teach us because their presence was something that was considered by our schools to be a privilege. Since they attended universities, they were presented as voices of authority and given license to do as they pleased.
Worse, because they were inexperienced and generally not in touch with my schools' climates, they weren't really effective teachers and I learned very little from them.
Essentially, they all were just student teachers who tested out lesson plans on us to get teaching experience. And while gaining experience was necessary for them to pursue their goals, it came at the expense of us receiving a consistent education from the most qualified people possible. In these partnerships between my schools and universities, the benefit wasn't mutual.
I spent years in school having college students impact my life, in the name of community partnerships.
Now I'm on the other side of it.
Last year I, along with a few fellow UMBC students from Baltimore City, established a student organization at our school. We saw that our school had a need for a student group that connected members of our campus to Baltimore in a meaningful way. We didn't want to repeat the mistakes that I witnessed in elementary, middle, and high school, so we tried to think through this carefully.
Even though UMBC is close to Baltimore, many students here know little about the city beyond its tourist attractions and what they hear on the news. As a result, a lot of them want to help improve life for Baltimore's residents, but they are unsure of where to start.
Our group, The Charm City Connection, aims to help fix this problem by providing our fellow college students with a tangible way to get involved in Baltimore City. We plan to both go into a city school to provide mentorship to students and to serve as a resource for volunteering opportunities.
Because all of our founding members attended Baltimore City schools, we know that we have the benefit of having firsthand knowledge. Since we intimately understand that students in Baltimore face issues that are specific to the community, we know that we have to take students' experiences into account before entering any school.
We also know that university involvement in surrounding communities is essential and admirable, but only if it's done correctly. The community's needs have to be put first in any initiatives that are carried out, and in doing so the savior complex that typically drives relations between universities and their surrounding areas will be avoided.
So we have partnered with The Shriver Center at UMBC, which has a track record of considerate community interactions, in order to gain access to its established relationships with local schools. As our school's main body for community outreach, The Shriver Center features multiple initiatives like service learning programs and public service fellowships that have enriched many lives and made lasting impacts in the area.
Our organization's partnership with The Shriver Center highlights the importance of the balance between resources and lived experiences in community relationships. Without the support of The Shriver Center and our status as UMBC students, our organization would have struggled to gain the access to the students we wanted to work with. At the same time, any interactions we have with the students will be strengthened by our personal connections to Baltimore.
This coming semester, The Charm City Connection will work with Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High, an alternative high school in West Baltimore. We hope to promote a culture at UMBC of intentional commitment to Baltimore-and to build a relationship in the community that is beneficial to all involved.