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'Citizen Student' runs empowering program

Jess Bryson’s dedication to serving her community began long before she arrived at Northeastern.

While a student at Gorham High School in Maine, she tutored kindergartners, taught a “reading buddy,” worked on blood drives and coached field hockey and basketball for younger girls. “My parents encouraged us to do it,” she said, “and I liked it. I felt like I was making a difference to somebody.”

Now a senior at Northeastern, the communications studies major has spent years working with the nonprofit Strong Women Strong Girls (SWSG), an after-school mentoring program for girls in grades three, four and five in Boston. SWSG, Bryson said, not only presents the girls with historical and current stories of women in leadership roles, it requires them to come up with their own community service projects.

“They do things like clean up a park, to make it safe to play in; they like to create murals,” she said. “In the neighborhood around one community center there was a problem with obesity among children, and the girls created a healthy-eating cookbook.”

Bryson said she became interested when her roommate picked up an SWSG T-shirt at a Northeastern volunteer fair. “I thought it was the most adorable thing ever, so I went to a meeting — and I just stayed.” Three years later, Bryson is director of the Northeastern SWSG program, coordinating 30 students working at four Boston schools and two community centers; she also sits on SWSG’s national board of directors.

“It can be frustrating,” said Bryson. “It’s hard for mentors sometimes to connect with the girls — as college students, we’re automatically privileged, and the girls we serve are economically at risk. … But it’s such an empowering program. It’s tough, but you see the results.”

In her “spare” time, she works as a service-learning teaching assistant for a class in “consultation skills,” one of Northeastern’s many service-learning courses — that is, courses in which community service projects help students understand and practice the course content. This class has continued to work with the Jamaica Plain homeless shelter hopeFound since 2004.

After graduation she hopes to work in marketing or public relations for nonprofit organizations.

A South End resident, Bryson enjoys Boston. “I love it. It’s vibrant. It’s active. It’s diverse. There’s always stuff to do,” she said. “It’s what I always wanted. I can’t imagine leaving the city now.”