Gephardt News

Advancing the WashU Mission through Community Engagement

Ryan Paige’ 17 reflects on her path to WashU and lessons learned on effective community engagement. Ryan graduated with a degree in Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies from the College of Arts & Sciences.  As a Gephardt Institute student intern, Ryan coordinated our Each One Teach One mentoring partnership with College Bound and has also held internships with College Bound and the YMCA. Originally from Park Forest, Illinois, Ryan is now teaching elementary school in St. Louis through Teach For America. 

Raised by a mother and grandmother who continually devote their time and efforts to helping others, I grew up believing that you should always give back to the community you live in. With that in mind, I spent my first few weeks on campus at WashU searching for opportunities to engage with the greater St. Louis community. I would be lying if I said this search wasn’t partially motivated by my desire to interact with more people who looked like me and with whom I shared a similar background.

I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago in a predominantly African American neighborhood, one where we played double-dutch and rode bicycles until the streetlights came on, with no idea that we resided on the edge of whiter and more affluent neighborhoods. In eighth grade, I was eager to go to my neighborhood high school. My plans were halted, however, by my middle school science teacher, who encouraged my parents to enroll me in a predominantly white parochial school, one that is just seven minutes from my house but that I had never seen until I went to take the entrance exam.

In this school, I was a bit uncomfortable at first. As an only child and a self-proclaimed introvert, I already struggled with making new friends. Only here, there weren’t as many cultural similarities that eased relationship building as in middle school. Here, I felt like a fish out of water, so I kept my head down, allowing only my teachers to know that I was achieving perfect scores on almost every assignment.

When it was time to apply to college, WashU was not on my radar. No one in my family has attended college out of the state of Illinois, and those who did attend college did not complete their degrees. I was just planning on attending an inexpensive state school, close to home. Yet again, my plans were, fortunately, thwarted by my high school guidance counselor who would call me out of class to repeatedly show me WashU brochures. Her consistency worked, and here I am today, ready to graduate with Latin Honors from a prestigious university.

When I found my way to engage with the St. Louis community through the Gephardt Institute’s Each One Teach One tutoring initiative, I had no doubt that connecting with youth who looked like me would be a piece of cake. I sat through tutor training unshaken by the sessions on racial inequity and disparity in St. Louis. I entered the elementary school convinced that it would be a breeze. It was not. Despite my warm skin tone and natural hair, the students still eyed me with an uncertain stare, one that questioned me almost more than it questioned the other tutors. Regardless of how closely I identified with them in race, gender, or socioeconomic status, I was still a WashU student, and that set me apart.

Civic engagement is more than volunteering. It is holding an awareness of our privileged identities and recognizing them as possible barriers to interacting with different communities. It involves partnership that recognizes the needs of under-resourced communities by taking the time to listen to individual stories and concerns. It requires thoughtful and intentional volunteerism that serves a community’s actual needs, rather than only providing the resources we, as the volunteers, may happen to have on hand. I quickly learned this as those same students who were unsure of my character began to open up to me. They admitted, “Ryan, when we first saw you we didn’t know what to think. We thought you were rich and stuck up. We had never seen a WashU student like you, and we thought you weren’t even really black.”

While these comments were, initially, hard to digest, they taught me a valuable lesson. At WashU, we have the amazing and rare opportunity to engage with our surrounding communities on an institutional level. We have the opportunity to shape the way we want others to view this university and show that we do care about the disparities that exist just down the street. Still, we must be aware that carrying WashU as a part of our identity may create tension, hesitation, or uncertainty between us and our neighbors. Such feelings are valid and more than okay, but we must be aware that they exist and actively work to show that the prestige of this university does not define us, rather our passion for community engagement defines the mission of this university.

Over the past four years, I have learned many invaluable lessons that will stay with me for years to come. I have learned how to enter communities with humility and empathy. I have realized that taking the time to learn names and stories is crucial to broadening your understanding of the world, and most importantly, I have learned how to better use my privilege as a WashU student to empower under-resourced communities in the St. Louis region. My journey has made me proud to be a WashU student, one who cares about her community both on and off campus and seeks to carry on the mission of the Gephardt Institute by encouraging civic and community engagement in everyday life.