Stories of Service


By: Shayla Thiel Stern


Helping Students Graduate and Developing Leadership Skills as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow

After Michaela Koller graduated from Macalester College in 2018 with a degree in physics, she found herself at a crossroads.

Although she loved science, she was not ready to apply to a graduate program. Although she had not studied education, she found herself drawn to working with students. Originally from New York, she had lived most of her life with her family in England, but she was not ready to move back to the United Kingdom.

Deciding to stay in Minnesota for the time being, she applied for a part-time high school AVID tutor position in the White Bear Lake School district.

However, after the interview, she found herself weighing a different full-time possibility in a program she had never heard of before: An AmeriCorps Promise Fellow with Minnesota Alliance With Youth.

“The AVID tutor supervisor was also the Promise Fellows supervisor, and told me, ‘We’d be happy to have you as a tutor twice a week, but we’d also love to have you apply to be a Promise Fellow,’” Michaela said. “The tutor role was exciting, but I wanted to be able to support students more than just twice a week, and I felt like the Promise Fellow role was exactly what I was looking for – I just didn’t know it existed.”

Learning About AmeriCorps Promise Fellows

The Minnesota Alliance With Youth works in partnership with youth to ensure that ALL young people have equitable educational opportunities that foster their individual assets, honor their voices and prepare them to reach their goals . To further that mission, the Alliance hosts AmeriCorps Promise Fellows across the state. AmeriCorps Promise Fellows focus their service on working with youth who could benefit from extra support and relationships to keep them on track in school and community-based settings. Fellows provide researched-based interventions that focus on promoting and improving attendance, behavior and school success.

Michaela started her service as a Promise Fellow at White Bear Lake Area High School South Campus, meeting with 11th and 12th graders, often serving students who had already turned 18 and were not excited about staying in school in order to graduate. It was the first year South Campus’ AmeriCorps Promise Fellow program, which Michaela said was exciting.

“I really enjoyed it and felt like it fit well for me.,” she said. “I liked having control over what the program would look like. As I met my students, I could tweak the program to meet their needs, and that might not have been the case if the program had existed previously. I really appreciated that.”

How She Engaged Students

Promise Fellows are united by their desire to serve youth and be a supportive person, she said.

“It’s about wanting to build relationships, and if that’s something you want to do, then you can do it,” she said. She learned to use different strategies to reach different students, and she knew she was making an impact when her students began to just show up at her office without her having to summon them with a pass.

“They would come and be like, ‘Hey, Michaela, I’m having trouble with this assignment,’ or ’Something’s going on and I need to talk,’” she said. “But the kind of improvement we are looking for sometimes is just showing up, so we track attendance and tardiness, and that’s a clear way to track whether other numbers are improving.”

Michaela said that using data to better understand students – from student engagement instruments, attendance data and other performance measures – was interesting, but often, “there are things you can’t see in the data – outside reasons for why they are late, for example.” That’s why relationship building is such an important part of the service being done by AmeriCorps Promise Fellows, whose goal is to serve a focus list of up to 30 students for 30 minutes a week for at least 12 weeks.

New Term, New Role

In September, Michaela switched from her position at White Bear Lake to the Minnesota Alliance With Youth main office in St. Paul, where she now serves as the Promise Fellow Leader. In her new role, Michaela supports 100+ AmeriCorps Promise Fellows by organizing and facilitating professional development trainings, managing student data tracking and being there for members when they need that little extra support from someone who has previously been in their shoes.  She said she has enjoyed helping members who might be falling behind by offering them a planning tool and extra support.

“It’s extended my understanding of the things that I can get done. I definitely manage a lot of projects and it can be a little overwhelming, but I figure it out and figure out how to balance things,” she said.

She’s been grateful for the chance to pick up new skills – data analysis and creating spreadsheets, specifically, which has sparked interest in returning to the sciences and potentially studying data science.

In her service at White Bear Lake, Michaela was the lone AmeriCorps Promise Fellow, which she described as sometimes being isolating. She decided that as Promise Fellow Leader, she would assure that members who were serving alone at sites could have more opportunities to earn service hours, especially when schools were not in session, in which they could interact with other Promise Fellows.

She said that moving from a school to a nonprofit organization office has been a good transition for her overall.

“One of the biggest shifts this year is being part of the team now, there’s a huge collaboration piece of being a part of the Minnesota Alliance WIth Youth,” Michaela said. “It feels awesome to be supported and be able to support others.”

Developing Leadership Skills, Giving Back

She has also been able to develop her leadership skills as Promise Fellow Leader.

“I have really enjoyed getting to lead,” she said. “I’m usually a person who is quiet when I’m in a group, so being in a leadership position pushes me to not be the quiet person and find ways of making those connections even in a setting where I otherwise wouldn’t really try.”

Michaela recommends service as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow to any person who wants to “build relationships with youth, model good behavior and show you are a caring adult.”

“It’s 11 months of your life that can shift your understanding of and it’s such a short period to do something that is really great. Giving back to the community is an experience that is sometimes hard to find, and people have a lot of questions about how to do it, and this is such a clear way of doing it — and serving a group that is going to be the future.”

Learn more about serving as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow with Minnesota Alliance With Youth.

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