Date June 15, 2022
Media Contact

Swearer Center student award winners reflect on impactful engagement in K-12 schools

Two recent Brown graduates who won community engagement awards from the Swearer Center spent years engaging with schools and teachers in Providence — now, they’re poised to take on careers in education.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For three and a half decades, the Swearer Center at Brown University has been a hub for community engagement, connecting students, faculty and staff at Brown with partners in and around Providence. The center draws in hundreds of Brown students each year who are committed to making a positive impact on the state where they live, work and study.

While some students contribute a few hours of volunteer work a week — offering test preparation for local high school students, perhaps, or providing outreach and food to local residents who are unhoused — others take on leadership roles, transform existing programs or even creating their own engagement initiatives. For those in the latter category, there’s the Swearer Student Awards

The awards, given out each spring, recognize a handful of graduating seniors for their outstanding work in community engagement. This year’s awards recognized (among others) students who built strong connections with their community partners, who designed their own unique community-engaged academic journeys and who worked with the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority to develop a touch-free fare card in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Brown celebrated Commencement late this spring, Class of 2022 graduates Alexa Ara and Breanna Cadena — two award winners who focused on K-12 education in their engagement — answered questions about their time in local schools, their academic journeys and their post-graduation plans.

Alexa Ara

Concentrations: Education studies and Portuguese and Brazilian studies
Award: Engaged Scholarship Award
Statement from the Swearer Center: Alexa has been deeply involved with the Swearer Center throughout her time at Brown, as an Engaged Scholars Program student, a Community-Based Learning and Research Fellow, and recently an Engaged Scholarship Peer Advisor. Her work includes, but is not limited to, working in collaboration with Professor Yoko Yamamoto and Achievement First, as well as with Professor Patricia Sobral and City Year Providence.

Q: What is your background, and what led you to Brown?

I grew up in Southern California, and I was looking for a completely different setting. My high school orchestra took a trip to New York, which gave me the chance to drive up to Brown. It was the dreariest, coldest day — you know, one of those days when the fog just clings to everything. And I loved it.

My parents are both teachers, and my grandparents were, too, but I had no idea I wanted to study education when I arrived at Brown. At the end of my first year, I was talking to a friend, and they said, “You’re so passionate about issues in education. Why don’t you take a class about it?” I said, “You’re incredibly right.” 

Q: What kind of community engagement were you involved in while at Brown?

At first, I felt like I was doing community engagement that didn’t have much connection to my academics. I wanted to know how I could conduct research with the community while also making ethical and reciprocal partnerships, and that’s what I learned in the Engaged Scholars Program. I did a capstone where I looked into the role of high school counselors in promoting multilingualism. I took several courses that involved studying language policy, and I combined that with work at a coalition in Rhode Island that promotes multilingual learning in local schools. It was such a lovely experience.

At the same time that I applied for Engaged Scholars, I also applied to the Community-Based Learning and Research Fellowship. I thought, maybe I’ll get one — but I ended up getting both! I was part of the first cohort of fellows, which was special, because we were able to connect with the folks who built it and understand the intent behind it and the impact they wanted to have. The idea is that students can work with faculty members who want to create or build on existing community partnerships for their classes. I worked with Yoko Yamamoto to look into families’ engagement in their children’s schools, and then with Patricia Sobral, who wanted to create a course that would teach people how to integrate the arts into their classroom practice. We partnered with City Year, and it was amazing to see the engagement not only of the City Year teaching corps but also of the students in the course, who jumped in to training the City Year corps members with such enthusiasm.

Q: What are your post-graduation plans?

While I was at Brown, I realized that I had unconsciously become a peer advisor in a lot of my roles on campus, and I was really enjoying that aspect. So I would like to pursue a career in counseling, maybe becoming a school counselor or a school social worker. I really love developing one-on-one relationships, something I was lucky to discover through my experience at Brown.

After graduation, I’ll be working for the College Advising Corps through the University of Southern California. The CAC had a presence at my high school and helped me get to college. It’ll be amazing to be on the other side of the equation.

Breanna Cadena

Concentrations: Education studies and political science
Award: Abelardo Hernández Community Engagement Award 
Statement from the Swearer Center: Breanna has been a member of Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring since her first year at Brown. She quickly became a site leader and began supporting others in their community engagement at the William D’Abate Elementary School. Breanna remained a leader throughout her time at Brown, and was an important member of the BEAM leadership team during the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning. 

Q: What is your background, and what led you to Brown?

I grew up in Texas, attending various public and charter schools that served predominantly low-income students of color. I didn’t know that I’d end up pursuing a college education 2,000 miles from home, but I met a mentor at one of my charter schools who challenged me to apply to schools far and wide, even if I didn’t think I could get in. The school covered standardized test fees and application fees, so I really could shoot my shot. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to get into Brown.

Q: Why did you decide to join Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring?

As a first-year student, I really wanted to give back to the community; I always thought that was an important thing growing up. I really loved the idea of going into a school like D’Abate Elementary, because the students there reminded me of my own community back home in Texas. I wanted to show the students that, hey, I’m someone who looks like you and had similar experiences, and I went to college, and you can too.

For my first and second year, I was a regular volunteer at BEAM, organizing a huge variety of after-school enrichment activities. One of my favorites was when we introduced the students to historical figures who came from a variety of backgrounds — people who don’t always come up in class, like Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. I loved that I could be my full self around the kids, just making jokes and letting go of my self-consciousness.

During my junior and senior years, I was a site leader. My job was to recruit student volunteers to lead enrichment activities, to organize orientations for new volunteers, to go over lesson plans, and to oversee everything one day a week. We give volunteers a lot of autonomy; they’re encouraged to be creative with whatever they want to teach students, whether it’s English or history or science or art. They each brought something unique to the table, and together, they created fun, engaging programs. It was tough to sustain during the pandemic: We started with online asynchronous programs, then online synchronous before returning in-person, and that demanded whole new levels of creativity. As challenging as that was, it brought up important conversations about what we could improve on and advance in the program. As a result, I feel like we set BEAM up to be a long-term, sustainable program that makes a big difference in kids’ lives.

Q: What are your post-graduation plans?

I hope to get hired as a counselor by the high school I attended. They have created a new role for someone to help students write college essays, prepare for standardized tests, keep their grades up and advise on what colleges would make sense for them to apply to. 

Eventually, I’d like to get a master’s degree in school counseling. I want to keep working with students — it’s a job that keeps you humble in the best way. At BEAM, I’d see students for three hours every week, and sometimes they’d act out. Rather than being upset, I would ask myself, should I have a deeper conversation about why they’re feeling this way? There could be so many things going on in their life outside of the time we have together. That’s an important lesson for life in general: You meet people and catch them at a bad moment, but you can still be kind, you can listen, you can make them feel better.