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Ph.D. student named Outstanding Young Virginian for service-learning, education projects in Richmond

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Amanda Hall, a Ph.D. student in the School of Education’s curriculum, culture and change track, was named one of the Virginia Jaycess Outstanding Young Virginians for 2016.

The Virginia Jaycees have named a Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education doctoral candidate as one of its three Outstanding Young Virginians for 2016 for her efforts to improve the lives of Richmond residents through numerous community service and education projects.

Amanda Hall, a former Henrico County middle school teacher and a Ph.D. student in the School of Education’s curriculum, culture and change track, received the award, which has honored young people across Virginia who are making a positive impact in their communities since its founding in 1942.

Hall, who is researching critical service-learning, will defend her dissertation in May. She teaches Introduction to Community Engagement in VCU’s Honors College and a graduate service-learning course, Teacher Education Secondary Practicum, in which future secondary school teachers in the School of Education’s Master of Teaching program work with middle school students in Richmond and Henrico County to launch service projects, such as school gardens, recycling campaigns, and literacy events.

It’s beyond just service. It’s meaningful service.

“Winning this award, I’m just really humbled and honored,” Hall said. “For me, it all comes back to critical service-learning [and] to helping students to use the knowledge that they have and the knowledge that they’re learning in school to really make change — change that’s meaningful for them, that impacts them on a personal level and their own community. It’s beyond just service. It’s meaningful service.”

Lynn Pelco, Ph.D., associate vice provost for community engagement and director of VCU Service-Learning in the Division of Community Engagement, nominated Hall for the award, citing Hall’s long list of projects that have benefited the Richmond community.

“Amanda is a consummate educator, environmental scientist, social justice advocate, youth mentor, community-based researcher, social entrepreneur, gardener extraordinaire and citizen leader in Richmond, Virginia,” Pelco wrote in her nomination letter. “It has been an honor to collaborate with Amanda for the past six years and to witness the powerful positive influence she has already had on both her students and on our community. Amanda gives me hope that the next generation of higher education leaders will create a 21st-century learning space for universities that is not only experiential, engaging and innovative but also inclusive of the communities that lie beyond the campus gates.” 

Wanting to make a difference

Hall first came to Richmond 11 years ago with the idea that she would pursue a master’s degree in environmental science from VCU while working as an environmental specialist with a local environmental consulting firm.

“When I decided to go into environmental work, the idea was I going to make a difference. I wanted to make big changes in the world. And then you realize that you’re not saving the planet at all as just one person,” Hall said. “So I was like, what can I do to feel like I’m really making a difference? And so, I was like, ‘I have this degree in environmental science, maybe teaching earth science would give me the opportunity to inspire students to go out and make a difference.’”

Hall obtained a postbaccalaureate teaching certification and a master’s degree in Environmental Education and was quickly recruited by Henrico County Public Schools to teach earth science at Fairfield Middle School, a high-needs school in Richmond’s East End. 

“I had never student taught. I had a teaching license. But I had never been in a classroom as the teacher. I walked in. I was scared to death,” she said. But that was short lived, and within a very short time, I loved that community, loved that school and loved those kids. I’ve been working with Fairfield for 10 years now and consider it home.”

At Fairfield Middle, Hall launched a middle school chapter of DoSomething.org, a global nonprofit organization that works to empower young people to make positive change. The after-school program, which Hall still organizes, encourages Fairfield students to launch their own community service projects about issues they care about.

“The kids pick what issues are important to them – any social issue that they care about – it could be animal welfare or poverty or homelessness or domestic abuse,” Hall said. “Usually it’s based on their own experiences. They design and create their own service projects. They facilitate these projects themselves 100 percent. When I started seeing the positive empowerment and the positive changes in the school and in the community just by helping them have an opportunity to express themselves and give back, it was a transformation.”

Each year, the Do Something club at Fairfield Middle organizes a “Teens for Jeans” clothing drive and fashion show to raise awareness about youth homelessness. In its seventh year, the FMS students and community members have collected and donated more than 8,000 pairs of jeans to Richmond shelters.

Another project, to host a free community dinner, was suggested by one of the club’s former members, who was 12 years old at the time.  

“After studying the link between food and culture, the student spoke up and said, ‘Why can’t we do a family dinner here once a month in which we invite the community, we have a theme, make it free so no one has to pay, we cook a meal, they can bring their kids, bring their family?’” Hall said. “At the end of the month, she said, people in our neighborhood — especially people with large families — they need help. So why don’t we have a [community dinner] for them? I was like, ‘You know, you’re right. We should.’”

The club, in partnership with the Grow On! Garden Market Program, hosted the dinners each month last school year through a SPARK award provided by The Community Foundation, with each dinner cooked and served by members of the Do Something club, the school’s garden interns, and community and VCU volunteers.    

Five years ago, Hall attended a workshop at VCU for science educators. At the end of the workshop, each participant received a $1,000 grant to launch an environmentally focused project at their school. Hall’s students had been suggesting that they build a garden, so she decided to use the grant to build two eight-foot garden beds that would teach the students about composting and how food grows.

“Most of my kids actually had no idea that the food that they eat came out of the ground,” she said. “That’s true. Many thought it came out of cans.” 

The following year, Hall received a $5,000 grant from Lowe’s Toolbox for Education to expand the garden, and it grew to 16 beds with an outdoor pavilion. Hall and the students tried to donate the food they were growing to local food banks, but found little interest because it required space to prepare and equipment to store.

“That was a really pivotal moment for me. It was a service-for model rather than a service-with model. We were growing this food, and we know people need it but nobody would pick it up,” she said. “The issue was that food banks, soup kitchens, churches, they don’t have anywhere to store fresh produce. They don’t have cold storage. They also don’t have anywhere to prepare fresh produce at these small places. If we had worked with the community partners ahead of time, we would have been better able to meet the community’s needs.”

Students sell affordable fresh produce grown at Fairfield Middle School as part of the Grow On! Garden Market Program.
Students sell affordable fresh produce grown at Fairfield Middle School as part of the Grow On! Garden Market Program.

“It was eye-opening for me. Just going into communities and doing something for people sounds good, but that’s not the way to do it,” she said. “You can’t make assumptions, you can’t do it without community partners. That refined my whole outlook on how service should be.”

In partnership with The Community Food Collaborative, Hall decided to change the focus of the school’s garden, and began to investigate the possibility of launching a student-run market to sell the produce instead. She traveled to Denver to meet with the organizers of Denver Urban Gardens, which organizes student-led markets.

When she returned, Grow On! Garden Market was launched, which sells low-cost naturally grown produce to community members each week at Fairfield Middle.

Students in grades 6 through 8 apply to take part in the market as interns, gaining skills such as social entrepreneurship and customer service. Grow On! just wrapped up its third market season.

Service-learning at VCU

At VCU, Hall has led a number of initiatives focused on empowering students to engage with service-learning and working to better the community.

“It is going to be a fun week when Amanda walks into my office, which she frequently does, and says, ‘I have an idea! What would you think if we … ’” Pelco wrote in her nomination letter. “I have learned to lean into those conversations regardless of the size and scope of the idea because Amanda demonstrates a remarkable ability to get the job done.”

Hall worked with the Division of Community Engagement, for example, to design a service-learning training and certification program for doctoral students at VCU who are preparing to become university faculty members.

“The research shows that most universities are requiring their faculty to teach at least one service-learning based course and requiring their students to have taken at least one service learning course before they graduate,” she said. “I provide a guest lecture to students in the PFF program once per semester focused on service-learning in higher education – how do you, as a professor, create a syllabus, form community partnerships, and all the other tenets of service-learning.”

Throughout all of her work, she said, she has sought to empower students and others to not only strive to make change, but also to ensure that the change is meaningful — to dig deeper than the surface issues and address root causes of social inequity.

“My hope is that [this work] will foster a critical service ethic in my students to be civically engaged throughout their life,” she said. “I’ve dedicated myself to that because I believe in it and I’ve seen what it can do for our students and schools, the empowerment and the positivity that can come out of providing opportunities to be heard and to take action.”

Andrew Daire, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Education, said Hall “embodies our mission to make a positive impact on the communities we serve.”

“She’s been a leader on many diverse projects that improve the lives of Richmonders, such as addressing the lack of fresh food in schools through her Grow on! Garden Markets and helping incorporate service-learning into VCU’s Preparing Future Faculty program,” he said. “She’s a great representative of the School of Education and we couldn’t be more proud.”

In addition to being named one of the Virginia Jaycees’ Outstanding Young Virginians, Hall was also named as one of Style Weekly’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2015, and has received a VCU Currents of Change Award and the Community Foundation REB Award for Teaching Excellence.

At the Virginia Jaycees’ awards ceremony, Hall was delighted to find out that not only was she receiving an award, but that one of her former middle school students, Unity Bowling, was receiving the organization's Outstanding Future Leader award.

“Neither of us knew, and the Jaycees didn’t know. So out of the entire state, two people that won awards, I taught her. For me, that was probably one of my proudest teaching moments,” she said. “She was in the Do Something club. She was there when our garden got started. And she’s gone on to become an amazing change agent in Richmond. It all came full circle for me. Instead of one person trying to change the world, if you teach, the number of people you can inspire to change the world is limitless.”

 

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