Student ambassador program gives scholars a voice

Student ambassador program gives scholars a voice
Posted on 02/03/2020

Nearly 70 InspireNOLA middle and high school students fill the gym at Alice Harte Charter School as they animatedly discuss, table by table, how they could use their individual strengths to maximize their group’s skills to solve an issue students are facing today.

At one table, a senior from Edna Karr High School listens to a suggestion from an eight grader from Dwight D. Eisenhower and then offers feedback, including praise for the idea.  

At another table, eight students from across 7 schools are brainstorming ways in which their collective strength could tackle a problem.

This is what the InspireNOLA Student Ambassador program looks like during its monthly meeting. Nearly 70 scholars representing all seven InspireNOLA schools — Edna Karr, Eleanor McMain, McDonogh 35, Alice Harte, Andrew Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and 42 Charter School — come together to advocate for their peers while building leadership skills and fostering new relationships. 

Tyree’ Hayes, a senior at McMain, said the ambassador program has shown him he is a leader. 

“I am a role model to those behind me climbing up the ladder for how to keep pushing and never give up,” Hayes said. “I’m a role model for how to make it in my school community and in my city.”

Students are selected for the ambassador program in a number of ways. Some serve as members of their school’s student government, some are nominated by their peers, and some are appointed by their school leaders. 

The goal is to prepare scholars to be future leaders.

“Being a student ambassador means that it’s my job to inspire others and make sure that they believe they can do the impossible,” said Lace Legard, a junior at McDonogh 35. 

Involving ambassadors from all seven schools also works to help to promote student connections and relationships across the network.

“While it’s important for each school to have its identity and sense of pride, we want our students to understand that they are also part of a network and that it is important they get to know their peers at their sister schools,” McKneely said. “It’s also valuable to give our middle school students the opportunity to interact with high schoolers.”

This interaction fosters a sense of community across the network and allows the students a sense of ownership of their school and their CMO. 

“Being student ambassador means being a leader and to sever my school and community,” Said Aniyah Henderson, a senior at Karr. “It’s helped me believe in myself.”

Each month, they have an opportunity to talk directly to the CEO to address concerns and make suggestions that range from wanting more college visits to being allowed to listen to music on their personal devices during lunch. 

“Our students are our number one priority and it is important that they feel their voices are heard,” McKneely said. “I want a direct connection with the students experiencing our schools and I want their feedback on what we can do to best serve them.” 

By discussing concerns and requests with the CEO, students also learn the art of negotiation.

“It’s about managing the expectations,” said Timolyn Sams, InspireNOLA’s Director of Community Outreach and Engagement. “Advocacy isn’t always coming out with just your win. Bargaining is an important skill. They need to learn what their non-negotiables are and what they are willing to give up for a compromise.”

Along with helping students learn to advocate for themselves and their peers, the ambassador program aims to not only help the participants develop leadership skills but understand how they can put those skills to use in group settings for the betterment of all involved.

“We are training our students to be individual and collective leaders. We want them to understand the power they have themselves and then how that can relate to the community in the form of collective power,” said Timolyn Sams, who heads up the program.

One of the concepts the ambassadors are exploring this year is that of strengths and weaknesses and how they can better the community through the vision of a superhero.

“We want them to understand that no one is perfect, not even superheroes. We all have vulnerabilities, but we can use those in a way that ultimately makes us stronger,” Sams said. “We also strategize how people can come together in a way that maximizes those individual strengths and help minimize weaknesses.”

Recently, members of Vayla New Orleans came by to speak to the ambassadors about being agents of change now. Vayla is a progressive community-based organization in New Orleans that empowers youth and families through supportive services and organizing for cultural enrichment and positive social change. Their goal was to let InspireNOLA scholars know that they don’t have to wait to be an adult to enact change in their world. They have the power to do it right now.

“I’m learning that being a student ambassador means leading the way for the rest of my peers and that I can be remembered for having an impact,” Ranija Gaines, a senior at McMain, said. 

Some of the high school ambassadors had the opportunity to meet and talk with three of the 15 White Coats, who are the second-year Tulane pre-med students who skyrocketed into the national spotlight when a photo they took while wearing their medical white coats in front of the slave quarters at Whitney Plantation went viral recently.

Karr senior Ciyonte Tenner said having these interactions with successful people “who look like me” who are making a difference is inspiring. 

“It opened my eyes to new opportunities and wanting to be successful because we are basically limited as is,” she said. “This encourages me to expose my peers to how much of an advantage they have and that they should be destined to greatness.”

This realization is key for all students and the success of the program, said McKneely.

“It’s important for students to understand that they do have power. They can transform their lives and start a revolution in their schools and their community,” McKneely said. “It’s our job to help them develop ways to use their skills as leaders, advocates, and change agents for our city.”