Service-Learning Student Tucker Smith Prepares to Integrate Community Engagement with Career in Health
By Jenny Pedraza
Every Friday at 12:30 p.m., Tucker Smith, ’20, a Virginia Commonwealth University biology major, heads into G.W. Carver Elementary School in Richmond’s East End to meet up with his mentee, a fifth grade boy. The two eat lunch and spend time reading or working on other literacy activities in the school’s designated mentoring room. They also play games and create art projects together.
“We talk a lot - about school, friends and just general life stuff,” Smith said. “Mentoring for me is just letting a natural relationship develop by just being there, being a role model. You can really see that the kids look up to you.”
Smith mentors through the Carver Promise, which is executed through Communities In Schools (CIS) of Richmond. CIS is part of a national network of over 200 affiliates and works “to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life.” At Carver Elementary, the Carver Promise provides weekly mentoring and educational support for 350 first through fifth graders.
Smith’s work with the Carver Promise began during his freshman year at VCU. After taking the Focused Inquiry course, UNIV 111, with Assistant Professor Jamie Fueglein and learning about Fueglein’s other courses that were taught as service-learning courses, Smith decided to switch it up. He took Fueglein’s UNIV 112 service-learning course, working with the Carver Promise as the course’s community partner.
At VCU, service-learning refers to an intentional teaching strategy that engages students in organized service activities and guided reflection. The service activities benefit the community and, in combination with reflection and other classroom-based learning activities, enhance the academic curriculum of participating students.
“It was new for me, combining a class with service in the community,” Smith said. “But I found the course really helped me get out of the ‘VCU bubble’ during my first year on campus, and I loved the mission of the Carver Promise.”
Fast forward to sophomore year, and Smith is hooked. He signs on to be the Service-Learning Teaching Assistant (SLTA) for Fueglein’s UNIV 111 and 112 courses, acting as a liaison between Fueglein’s classes and the Carver Promise. Smith now counts Fueglein as one of the most influential professors he’s had at VCU, both a mentor and a friend.
SLTAs offer faculty critical support for coordinating student service experiences and ensuring quality service and reflection. In return, SLTAs have the opportunity to develop professionally, engage more deeply with the community and collaborate closely with a faculty member.
“As an SLTA, my role was to guide students through their service-learning process by helping them reflect and draw significance from their experiences,” Smith said. “As a servant-leader, it was important for me to remain an engaged volunteer while teaching others to do so. This ultimately helps to build a culture of dedicated and informed service-learning students.”
Fueglein said Smith’s perspective around his service and work has made him an ideal leader in service-learning.
“He ensures high quality partnerships by showing up early and staying late, working tirelessly on many things, and often simultaneously,” Fueglein said. “Students note his work ethic, and they emulate it. He has led many classes during which he extolled the virtues of being an engaged member of society. During the four semesters that Tucker was my SLTA, he exposed UNIV students to the harsh realities that some people in Richmond face on a daily basis, and the students are all the wiser for it.”
Smith’s success in service-learning was recognized last Spring when the Service-Learning Office announced the 2019 University Excellence in Service-Learning awardees. Smith was one of two students recognized as outstanding community-engaged student leaders and peer educators.
This past summer, Smith took the MCAT in preparation for his application to medical school. He’s not quite sure what path he wants to take in the health field, but he knows that working with kids and remaining engaged with the community must somehow fit into his larger professional goals.
“Service-Learning has exposed me to crucial social topics, such as intersectionality of inequality, service-learning theory and social determinants of health that I may not have learned about otherwise,” Smith said. “Service-learning has been one of the most significant parts of my college career.”