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Manisha Vepa
Manisha Vepa (Submitted photo)

What started out as a simple school assignment is now a much more meaningful experience.

My name is Manisha and I am a freshman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This past fall semester I volunteered with the Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project — RYP — which aims to help refugee students integrate with their communities and do better in school. We meet twice a week with kids of all ages to play games, do art projects and finish homework.

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When I first found out that I had to do service as part of my Honors College introductory first-year seminar, I grumbled a bit. I had volunteered for local charity events and music events throughout high school, but I didn't want to start a service project right away in college. I wanted to transition slowly into the college atmosphere and settle in before I became super involved. Thus, it was with a bit of reluctance that I looked over the service sites available to me and chose RYP.

My first day was nerve-wracking to say the least. I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to interact with the kids, if there was going to be a significant language barrier, or if they would even want to talk with me. I was nervous that I might intimidate them or make them upset. Throughout the session, my nerves didn't get better. I spent the whole session trying to reteach a young girl how to do double digit multiplication. I left that day feeling like I had confused her more than helped her.

The next week, I tried to be more adventurous and friendly. Instead of staying inside the church in Catonsville where we met, I joined the boys outside passing a soccer ball around. The boys were skilled players, and would often do fancy footwork before they sent the ball to their friends. I, on the other hand, was clumsy and uncoordinated, but was nonetheless accepted into the group. Seeing how quick they were to accept me, and of course tease me, made me relax.

Helping them with their homework still posed a problem. I had tutored students before, but I wasn't equipped to tutor refugee students still learning English. There were times where I didn't even remember what they were learning because I had done it four or five years ago. There were even times where, when I did know how to do it, I would have to explain it five or six different ways in order to help the student understand. Through it all, I was amazed at the kids' eagerness to understand and learn about what they were doing. One group of girls would giggle and chatter around the table, but would also work diligently to finish their math problems and English assignments. Even the more rowdy boys preferred to understand their homework instead of just complete it.

As the semester continued, I felt my role shift from "tutor" to "mentor." I now had a relationship with most — if not all — students, and I would often talk to them about my college experience and their goals for the future. And in return, they would teach me about their culture or their favorite soccer teams. It felt good to be able to motivate them and inspire them to go after the goals they previously thought were too ambitious.

Fortunately, I was able to overcome my nerves and better connect with the students. I learned how to better help them with their homework, and I learned cool moves to show them when we played soccer. RYP became a way for me to be a mentor and role model, and also gave me a well-needed break from the college atmosphere and campus. Thursdays became my favorite days.

RYP may have started out as a requirement for my honors seminar, but it became an integral part of my college experience. It has been important in helping me with my transition into college, as well as my growth as an individual. I look forward to continuing to work with RYP for the rest of my college career.

The Volunteer Voices section highlights outstanding volunteers in the Baltimore County area. If you're a volunteer and are interested in submitting to the series, please email elaina.clarke@communitytimes.com.

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