Meet several Neighborhood Longhorns leaders who launched a university-wide volunteer recruitment effort for Austin schools
When the pandemic forced schools to switch to remote learning, a group of students pitched an idea to the DDCE’s Neighborhood Longhorns Program (NLP) to ramp up its volunteer base and expand online learning resources for several Austin-area schools. They soon put out a call on social media for student organizations across the university to “Join the Herd,” resulting in hundreds of new volunteers from about 80 student organizations.
We caught up with several student leaders to learn more about their creative online learning methods—and why they enjoy volunteering for a college readiness program that has been helping Austin youth (grades 2-8) pursue the path to success for nearly three decades.
Katelyn Anderson, Business Honors/Accounting Senior
Student Athlete Volunteer
Katelyn Anderson is one of the many student athletes who volunteer their time showing Neighborhood Longhorn students around campus and offering a glimpse into college life. When an elbow injury forced her into early retirement from UT’s Track & Field team, she continued volunteering with the NLP, which has been a big part of her life since her freshman year. Now she is leading the program’s efforts to expand its volunteer force during this challenging yet opportunistic time of online learning.
What made you decide to get involved with the NLP?
I’ve always had a passion for education, specifically for youth education. Back in high school, I volunteered for similar programs, so I wanted to continue doing this work when I got to UT. Early on, I learned about the NLP and kept with it. This program is so valuable to the schools it serves, and I’m proud to help out with their efforts—especially during this difficult time of online schooling.
What sparked the idea for the “Join the Herd” effort?
NLP serves hundreds of students, and there aren’t enough UT student volunteers filling the demand. When the pandemic hit, we reached out to NLP leaders—Hannah, Celina and Howard—to help bolster the volunteer base. They were very receptive to our ideas, so over the summer we reached out to several student organizations to launch the university-wide “Join the Herd” initiative. With the pandemic bringing a lot of philanthropic endeavors to a halt, this was an opportunity to get more people to find volunteer work. After the first big social media push, we got a big response from dozens of student orgs. Now we’re up to 80 participating student organizations, which is pretty incredible.
What are your current and upcoming offerings for partnering schools?
We’re working with six participating schools, offering pre-recorded videos and live tutoring sessions. Videos range from activity-based arts and crafts sessions to storybook readings to rocket-launching demos from UT’s engineering lab. Now we’re trying to recreate our “College for a Day” event with virtual tours around the UT Austin campus—a favorite activity for both Neighborhood Longhorns and student leaders.
What are some benefits of moving NLP’s offerings online?
Schools are functioning very differently these days, so we have more flexibility to offer activities to these kids at different times of the day. Plus, we don’t have to build in time for driving and parking, so we can just hop on a Zoom session during a break between classes and have great interactions with the students. This has been a really great learning experience, and something to keep in mind for expanding the NLP’s reach long into the future.
Michael Duhaime, Air Force ROTC/Government Senior
Student orgs: Philanthropy Chair, Silver Spurs
Since his sophomore year at UT Austin, Michael Duhaime has volunteered his time tutoring Neighborhood Longhorn students at local middle schools and leading tours around the sprawling campus. He serves as philanthropy chair of the Silver Spurs, a student organization that has been a longtime supporter of the NLP program since its early inception.
What activities have you been offering to NLP students?
We’ve been offering virtual tutoring sessions lasting from 30 minutes to an hour. It’s a way of giving students, teachers and parents a break from their daily online learning routine. We help them brainstorm projects, figure out math problems, and sometimes we just hang out and chat. Of course there are some drawbacks to not meeting them in person, but this experience has shown me that going virtual has a lot of benefits. We can meet up within a matter of a few mouse clicks, so there’s a lot more flexibility.
What in-person NLP activity do you miss the most?
My favorite activity is showing NLP students around the UT campus and watching their eyes light up when they see the stadium in its full splendor. In these moments, I can see them imagining themselves in college and realizing it’s something they can achieve rather than a far-fetched dream. I miss this the most and look forward to doing it again when the pandemic is over.
Why is it important to get students into the college-going mindset?
College is a place where you get so many different experiences. It’s where people grow up, discover who they are and forge their own paths. I would love to see the kids I work with at Kealing Middle School graduate from college and go on to work on Wall Street or Silicon Valley one day. Those kids are so smart, and they have so much potential, so I can see this in their future.
What do you enjoy most about tutoring, and how can you relate with the students you’re working with?
Back in school, I struggled a lot with math. A tutor in an after-school program helped me through it and ensured that things were going to be OK. Having a tutor when you’re struggling is a godsend.
To give you an example, I remember working with this NLP student who was visibly frustrated when he sat down with his math homework. When he told me he was going to fail, I said, “You are not going to fail. Just breathe and we’ll work this out together.” When I tried to explain the math problem, he still didn’t understand and tears of frustration welled up in his eyes. So I put him on the phone with my friend who managed to explain the problem in ten seconds, and it just clicked. It was an amazing feeling watching him have that “aha!” moment and walk out of the room with a smile on his face.
What drives you to do this work?
I firmly believe that if you are in the position to give back to others, you should do it. Society is going to be better for it. It’s one thing to wish things were happening; it’s another to get out there and do it. I feel we all have this societal obligation to help others.
What do you hope to see in the future for the NLP?
It’s my hope that the NLP will keep growing and expanding its reach long after I leave UT. We are currently thinking of ways to help them transplant this model into cities across Texas. Just imagine the possibilities if thousands of students across the state had access to university resources that could help them reach their full potential and realize where they want to be in life. That would be pretty incredible.
Ethan Jones, Business Honors/Communications Junior
Student orgs: Silver Spurs, Student Government
Growing up in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Ethan Jones was always taught by his family of teachers to value education and to serve others. When he came to UT Austin, he found a natural fit with the NLP and joined its efforts to get thousands of Central Texas students into the college-going mindset.
How did you and your team of NLP student leaders come up with the “Join the Herd” idea?
After George Floyd’s death, we had a lot of conversations about race relations and how to get UT more invested in BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] as a whole. The NLP has been doing this work for nearly 30 years by supporting students in underserved neighborhoods, so we figured expanding its volunteer base would be the best way to make the biggest impact. The NLP is this hidden gem at UT that not a lot of students know about—and when they do, they fall in love with it.
What were your top priorities for this recruitment strategy?
Representation matters, so we really focused on diversity in order to ensure the volunteers were representative of the communities they were impacting. We worked with the Black Policy and Leadership Council, the National Pan-Hellenic Council [the governing body for UT’s nine historically African American Greek-letter organizations], and countless other student orgs to incorporate the broader student body. The response has been amazing—so many different orgs have been dedicating their efforts to this cause.
Why is this work so important to you?
I was blessed and privileged to grow up in a great school district, but I knew there was another side to that coin. The big force behind what I do is my passion for serving other people. Education is the best way to narrow societal gaps, and the NLP is really making a difference by sending out this powerful message to students that college is something they can achieve.
Shilpa Rumalla, Biology/Human Development and Family Sciences Junior
Student orgs: President, Future Doctors of America
When Shilpa Rumalla arrived at UT Austin, she quickly joined several nonprofits to make new friends while giving back to the community. She soon discovered her passion for supporting the neurodiverse community while volunteering with Best Buddies, anorganization that pairs adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities with college students for one-on-one friendshipsShe alsodevelops newsletters, maintains communication with camper families, and manages camper applications as an Outreach coordinator with Camp Kesem, an organization that supports children who have been impacted by their parent’s cancer.
Now a leader of the “Join the Herd” effort, the Spring, Texas native is helping to provide online resources—both entertaining and educational—for Neighborhood Longhorns in Austin-area schools.
How did you get involved with the NLP—and why was this program a good fit for the Future Doctors of America org?
Our main goal is to support students at UT along their pre-med journeys—and philanthropy is a big part of that. When COVID-19 hit, students didn’t have access to resources as they once did, so we wanted to give back to this community. First, we tried to reach out to schools but didn’t get much of a response because everyone was scrambling during the online learning transition. When we reached out to the NLP program, they were so excited to have our help. They’ve connected us with schools in need, allowing us to provide online resources like “Brain Breaks” videos and virtual tours of the UT campus. With everything thrown into disarray, we want to provide as many resources as we can to help students and teachers through the transition process.
How do you relate with the students you’re serving?
The struggles these NLP students are facing resonate with my own experiences in elementary school. I was a hard worker, but I had trouble listening in school and being attentive. My third-grade teacher put me down because of this, which really lowered my self-confidence. Now I have my confidence back and am excelling in school, but it has been hard getting to this point. So it means a lot to me to support these students and to let them know it’s OK if they’re struggling. If you want children to succeed, they need to believe in themselves. No child should ever feel they are not enough. Some students just need more support than others, and that’s completely OK.
It must be a struggle balancing school with volunteer work. Why is it all worth it?
It’s hard squeezing it all into my schedule, but this work gives me so much energy and motivation to keep moving forward. Online classes in subjects like organic chemistry and physics can get so monotonous. These volunteer activities remind me of the human aspect of what I’m doing and why I chose to become a doctor.
David Wang, Biomedical Engineering Sophomore
Student org: Future Doctors of America
When the schools shut down last March, David Wang searched online for ways he could serve the community. He soon discovered the NLP and signed up to “Join the Herd.” Alongside his fellow “herd” members of Future Doctors of America, he is finding creative ways to enhance virtual learning and motivate middle-schoolers to get into the college-going mindset.
Why are you interested doing this work?
There’s a huge discrepancy in education quality given to students of different socioeconomic status, and it has a profound effect on their chances of success. These schools don’t have the same resources for online learning as the more affluent school systems in Austin, so we’re doing what we can to enrich their virtual environments and help out the teachers in the process. Even the smallest things, like creating short videos as part of a collective effort, can make a profound impact.
What activities have you been offering NLP students?
We’re currently creating motivational videos and educational videos that highlight the importance of college. I like to tell them that, despite the financial challenges, it’s worth it in the long run to get a college degree. The overall experience of college will lead to a brighter future.
How have you, personally, benefitted from this volunteer work?
When I write notes for these motivational videos, I really have to reflect on my own life and why I chose this path. That self-reflection motivates me to keep pushing forward whenever I feel like I’m losing direction.
How motivates you to do this work?
My parents are immigrants from China, so we didn’t start out with a lot of money. I was able to witness the different levels of education starting with elementary school, which was poorly funded. As my parents earned their graduate degrees and moved up the corporate ladder, I attended wealthier schools and had access to resources like SAT preparation classes. These are huge advantages I wouldn’t have had if my parents didn’t achieve what they did. That’s why I feel so strongly about this program.
What is the best advice for Neighborhood Longhorns?
My best advice to students is to focus on your vision for yourself and try to block out as much external noise as possible. When you truly believe in your vision and your ability, you’ll end up in the most fulfilled place.
More about the NLP
Since 1991, the NLP has served about 100,000 economically disadvantaged youth in 40 participating Austin-area schools. In partnership with Texas Athletics, the program introduces children to the college environment at various UT campus events including College for a Day and sports events. Student volunteers, student-athletes and coaching staff work with about 5,500 students each year, encouraging them to stay in school and pursue college through consistent study habits, tutoring, incentives, scholarships and campus visits. Go to the NLP website to learn more.