Former Grinnellian Ethan Kenvarg ’12 returned this week to talk to current students about his experience thus far working as a Biology tutor with City Year at Kelvyn Park High School in West Side Chicago. City Year, a non-profit organization which partners with low-performing schools in urban areas, offers volunteers between the ages of 17 and 24 the opportunity to work with at-risk students who may be likely to drop out of school. The mentors help them with attendance, behavior, and course performance through tutoring and personal guidance. Kenvarg ’12 sat down with S&B reporter Kelly Pyzik ’16 to share what he has gained so far in his experience with City Year.
What inspired you to join City Year?
My brother did City Year when he graduated high school. He was ready to go off to college and my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. He said, “I’m not going to leave now.” So he stayed home and took care of my mom.
He decided to do City Year while he was at home. He fundamentally changed as a person. He became way more mature and more caring and thoughtful. I said, “Wow, what a great organization that can do that for him.” He just cared so deeply about the students he worked with.
When I was figuring out what the heck to do with my life after Grinnell, I applied to a bunch of things and then my roommate was doing City Year and he said, “Well, why don’t you apply, too?” So, I did, and I got in, and I moved to Chicago.
I figured it would be good and I would improve as a person, but I wasn’t super gung-ho about it. There are a lot of people who are like, “Yeah! City Year! I’m going to do it and it’s going to be the best thing!” I just sort of fell into it. I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t know what I was going to do or how it was going to be good for me. It has been phenomenal. I got lucky.
What are the changes you have seen your team make in the school throughout the year so far?
Numbers-wise, we’ve increased student attendance, and the core-passing rate for the freshman class is highest at our school out of all the classes. There’s a good attitude with kids who wouldn’t otherwise have it. I think it’s hard to say, “My team has had this impact with these numbers,” because, really, I look at it on an individual basis.
I know I have worked with kids who would be failing their class if I weren’t working with them, and for me, that’s the most significant impact that my team has had. We just get a lot of kids to pass. I think whenever a kid says, “Oh, I get it,” that’s really nice. I had a kid the other day say, “Man, I’m doing my work. This is great.” That was really cool. I think the little successes for me are way more significant than anything.
What do you think you have personally gained most from your experience?
A lot. I deal with stress a lot better. I have learned to work with a team and with people who are very different from me. Every day is very different at school. I never go into school and know exactly what’s going to happen that day. There are always situations that come up that you don’t know how to deal with and you have to figure it out.
Sometimes you mess up and sometimes you do it right, but you always learn from that experience. I haven’t felt like I’ve packed this much learning into any amount of time in my life. Even at Grinnell, I wasn’t learning as much as I am at this job. Every day is something new—that’s the personal growth aspect.
What do you think makes the personal interactions kids have with City Year members so effective?
The uniform is really important. That’s something that Dylan [Bondy ’16] was saying—it’s a universal skin. There are people on my team, like a black girl from Detroit, and then there’s me. If you look at us, you’re going to be like, “Well, that one’s different from that one.”
The kids are especially interested in those judgment calls than someone who is open-minded like a Grinnellian. If I can walk in with this universal skin, this uniform, they don’t know what to make of it. I’m suddenly this neutral person who comes in, and then I can interact with that kid. It eliminates the bias that those kids might have.
And, I think the fact that you’re between the ages of 17 and 24. You’re someone near their age, you know what they like, and you know what songs they listen to: you’re relatable in that way. You’re not a peer. You’re not a teacher. You’re a near-peer. You’re someone who is in this space between a teacher and a student and that’s nice. You can fill that space very well, I think, as a corps member.