Swearer Center student award winners reflect on impactful engagement in K-12 schools

Breanna Cadena

Concentrations: Education studies and political science
Awards: Abelardo Hernandez Community Engagement Award
Statement from the Swearer Center: Breanna has been a member of Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring since her first year at Brown. She quickly became a site leader and began supporting others in their community engagement at the William D’Abate Elementary School. Breanna remained a leader throughout her time at Brown, and was an important member of the BEAM leadership team during the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning.

Q: What is your background, and what led you to Brown?

I grew up in Texas, attending various public and charter schools that served predominantly low-income students of color. I didn’t know that I’d end up pursuing a college education 2,000 miles from home, but I met a mentor at one of my charter schools who challenged me to apply to schools far and wide, even if I didn’t think I could get in. The school covered standardized test fees and application fees, so I really could shoot my shot. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to get into Brown.

Q: Why did you decide to join Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring?

As a first-year student, I really wanted to give back to the community; I always thought that was an important thing growing up. I really loved the idea of ​​going into a school like D’Abate Elementary, because the students there reminded me of my own community back home in Texas. I wanted to show the students that, hey, I’m someone who looks like you and had similar experiences, and I went to college, and you can too.

For my first and second year, I was a regular volunteer at BEAM, organizing a huge variety of after-school enrichment activities. One of my favorites was when we introduced the students to historical figures who came from a variety of backgrounds — people who don’t always come up in class, like Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. I loved that I could be my full self around the kids, just making jokes and letting go of my self-consciousness.

During my junior and senior years, I was a site leader. My job was to recruit student volunteers to lead enrichment activities, to organize orientations for new volunteers, to go over lesson plans, and to oversee everything one day a week. We give volunteers a lot of autonomy; they’re encouraged to be creative with whatever they want to teach students, whether it’s English or history or science or art. They each brought something unique to the table, and together, they created fun, engaging programs. It was tough to sustain during the pandemic: We started with online asynchronous programs, then online synchronous before returning in-person, and that demanded whole new levels of creativity. As challenging as that was, it brought up important conversations about what we could improve on and advance in the program. As a result, I feel like we set BEAM up to be a long-term, sustainable program that makes a big difference in kids’ lives.

Q: What are your post-graduation plans?

I hope to get hired as a counselor by the high school I attended. They have created a new role for someone to help students write college essays, prepare for standardized tests, keep their grades up and advise on what colleges would make sense for them to apply to.

Eventually, I’d like to get a master’s degree in school counseling. I want to keep working with students — it’s a job that keeps you humble in the best way. At BEAM, I’d see students for three hours every week, and sometimes they’d act out. Rather than being upset, I would ask myself, should I have a deeper conversation about why they’re feeling this way? There could be so many things going on in their life outside of the time we have together. That’s an important lesson for life in general: You meet people and catch them at a bad moment, but you can still be kind, you can listen, you can make them feel better.

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