Northeastern’s Marine Science Center helps inspire future leaders from Boston youth academy

students gather around lobster touch tank
Sierra Muñoz, outreach program coordinator at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center, introduces a lobster to students from Boston’s We Belong program. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The lobster was not happy to be plucked out of the seawater tank. It was thrashing at the air like Edward Scissorhands.

“How strong are their claws?” asked one of the visiting students.

“I would not want to get my fingers stuck in there,” said Sierra Muñoz, outreach program coordinator at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center. She held the lobster upside down at arm’s length to reveal its eight shorter legs, all spinning wildly.

Several students expressed concern for the tank’s other animals. Muñoz nodded in agreement.

“There was one in that other tank but he started taking the arms off of sea stars,” she said. “So I was like, nuh-uh, you’re going back to the ocean.”

Thirty-two visitors, ranging from ages 14 to 22, were touring the Marine Science Center on Tuesday as part of the We Belong Leadership Academy, a program launched with nine students in 2016 by the Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Community Engagement that connects young people with leaders in profit and nonprofit businesses, government and the community.

Jeff Lopes was a Boston police officer when he founded We Belong. Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, helped Lopes develop the program’s funding as well as its partnership with Northeastern. The program’s daily headquarters are at Northeastern Crossing, where 45 students work with Jorge Dias, a former Boston police officer who joined Northeastern last year as a community engagement and off-campus student liaison.

“Our goal is to help young people maximize their potential: Truly discover who they are, who they want to be, increase their networks and create a sense of leadership in them—a sense of purpose,” says Lopes, now a Boston police detective with a Northeastern doctorate in law and policy. “Oftentimes our young people who grow up in the city are just so focused on the day-to-day. We’re trying to get them to think about tomorrow, like, who am I today and how this can impact tomorrow, and how that’s going to impact my community and those around me.”

Students are able to earn responsibility and express leadership as leaders of We Belong.

“The program itself really is a job,” says Max Garside, a rising sophomore at Xavier University who serves as a We Belong leader. “I’ll remind the kids to ‘put your phone away’ and get them engaged. Sometimes kids won’t participate in activities, but it’s on us to get them to step out of their comfort zone.”

Dias says the average student earns $650 every two weeks by participating in We Belong for 25 hours per week during the summer. The funding comes from the City of Boston’s Successlink program, Lopes says.

“We want to prevent them from doing the wrong thing, from engaging in the bad activities,” he says. “Providing that funding makes it so they’ll show up every day. They want to buy new sneakers to go back to school. And I’m sure most of our young people are helping their families with bills and other things—we understand that’s a key component of who they are as individuals.”

Emanuel De Pina joined We Belong in 2018. He’s a program leader as a rising junior at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“I’ve always wanted to go to college and I’m the first in my family to do so,” he says. “You get encouraged to participate in public speaking activities so that you’re not so shy anymore. You speak about your past, your present and your goals.”

Like many of the students, De Pina hopes to become a police officer. He and Garside are pursuing degrees in criminal justice.

Many hands reach out towards a lobster
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“It’s bringing people from different backgrounds and neighborhoods together and encouraging them to be leaders in their communities,” De Pina says. 

The program has helped Feidi Franco collaborate with her peers.

“The first thing I can say I’m getting out of this program is learning how to work with others and build each other up,” says Franco, a rising junior at Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, Mass. “Constructive criticism is a very big thing because I’m used to working by myself all the time. There’s always going to be different opinions, so everything stays respectful—and make sure others don’t take things the wrong way, because at the end of the day we’re a team.” 

Adds Amia Green, an incoming freshman at Lasell University: “We come back each year to get the feel for what it is like to work with other people and how to be professional in a job, in that kind of environment.”

Dias recommended the We Belong visit to Nahant, Massachusetts, after attending a Northeastern retreat at the Marine Science Center. Muñoz noted that the students were especially engaged.

“We were walking up these trails and looking at the water, and I felt like I was in the Caribbean,” Franco says. “And then the air is so fresh. So I learned that it makes an impact to keep the water and the environment clean.”

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