Sasha Shenk knew she wanted to contribute to the community surrounding Northeastern’s Boston campus even before she arrived from Seattle to start her health sciences major—but she never expected the volunteer work to be so beneficial for her.
“I gained so much from the experience,” says Shenk, who received Northeastern’s 2021 Community Service Leadership award for her work at 826 Boston, a nonprofit that helps students explore and grow their writing skills. 826 Boston, part of a national organization in eight other cities, has 2,500 volunteers engaged with students.
Shenk says helping Boston public high school students with their research papers broadened her own education, especially when COVID-19 precautions meant the volunteer space at 826 Boston shut down.
“During COVID everyone was suddenly at home, and I really gained this new perspective. We weren’t in this standardized environment of the classroom anymore where everybody can come in and focus on learning,” says Shenk. “I would often have students that I would work with and they’d be like, ‘Hey, I’m taking care of my sibling right now,’ or, ‘My mom needs me to help her with something’. I was working with a lot of underserved communities and a lot of these students didn’t have the same flexibility that many Northeastern students have.”
Heather Nelson, a writing room coordinator at 826 Boston, nominated Shenk for the award after working with her as a supervisor and mentor since 2019.
“Even from the very beginning when I met her, she had a really nice combination of skills. I could tell that she was a really detail oriented person who paid careful attention to writing and academic questions, but she was also really friendly and open with the students,” says Nelson. “She had good people skills and she was able to just sit down and have a conversation that put students at ease.”
Helping students expand their writing skills served as a creative counterbalance to her health science major, says Shenk. She encourages other students who want to volunteer locally to take a class through Northeastern’s Service-Learning program.
“It allowed me to really get involved with community engagement,” says Shenk, adding that the course also led to her Health Science Capstone project. Shenk used her experience working with the students to create an hour-long training session for future Northeastern service-learning students detailing ways to combat racism and address other social justice issues while volunteering.
“I’m really tremendously passionate about social equity, accessibility, social justice and anti racism,” says Shenk, adding that teaching students while they were in their homes opened her eyes to the many responsibilities that compete with their schooling.
“It’s one thing to learn about those things theoretically in a classroom, and another thing to really see a lot of those systemic inequities up close. It gives you the new ability to kind of put those glasses on and look around the world and see where all of those issues are happening, and look at the ways in which you can combat them on an everyday level.”
Shenk, who says she will continue to volunteer at 826 Boston, says students at the Boston campus can learn so much just by connecting to the surrounding neighborhoods.
“I originally felt like while I was a resident of Northeastern and I was in Boston for Northeastern, I wasn’t necessarily a community member of Mission Hill where I lived, or a community member of Roxbury. I think that the largest thing that working with these students really taught me was just a newfound appreciation and admiration for the communities in which I live that support me,” says Shenk.
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