The Daily Iowan
Wednesday, May 3, 2023

The Iowa Youth Writing Project facilitates student success and wellness, no matter what a student’s goals may be outside the classroom.


Katina Zentz

Students listen to instructor Sara McGuirk in the “Writing and Community Outreach” creative writing class on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.

Yasmina Sahir, Opinions Columnist
March 19, 2023

As a social justice and advocacy intern with the Iowa Youth Writing Project since last fall, I’ve never walked into a meeting when the room wasn’t filled with laughter and a sense of community.

At Iowa Youth Writing Project meetings, a collection of students from all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds along with peers from the LGBTQ+, first generation, and international student communities come together to discuss how to better serve K-12 youth in Iowa City.

I know the struggles associated with being removed from campus and opportunities because of remote learning; I’m a fifth-year undergraduate, and I was a sophomore at the University of Iowa in March 2020.

Current high school and college students like me had years impacted by teacher shortages and Zoom learning. In the Iowa City Community School District, over 30 positions are waiting to be filled for the spring.

Now, three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of the virus directly harmed learning proficiency in young adult age groups, including teens and college students.

The Iowa Youth Writing Project hosts programming at local public schools, including City High School, West High School, Tate High School, and several elementary and middle schools.

“I started volunteering when I was a student,” Iowa Youth Writing Project Director Mallory Hellman said. “What it did for me was break me out of the campus bubble in my head. Social and campus issues can feel so consuming, but getting off campus and engaging in the community can greatly benefit your educational and career goals.”

Inclusivity is a key component of the Iowa Youth Writing Project’s values. Kind, fair treatment for all is expected from leadership, college-aged volunteers, and youth partaking in programming.

As a North African student from a mixed-cultural background, I have encountered many uncomfortable, white-dominated spaces on the UI’s campus. But I can say that my time at Iowa Youth Writing Project has never left me wondering when or even if instances of microaggressions will occur. Staff, students, and youth work together to ensure the Iowa Youth Writing Project remains a safe space each semester.

The programming is designed for all students no matter their grade in school, socioeconomic background, primary language, or reading and writing abilities. Students in the program engage in writing clubs focused on personal growth during and after traditional school hours at no cost.

Kamilla Jacobo, a UI student studying psychology and Latinx studies, found their way to the Iowa Youth Writing Project because it filled a desire for teaching and giving back to the community that their studies on campus didn’t allow them to highlight in the classroom.

“Iowa Youth Writing Project works extremely hard to make the program diverse and inclusive. Everyone I’ve met in the program comes from a diverse background and works hard to make sure that everyone is welcomed and feels like they belong,” Jacobo wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.

This is Jacobo’s first year with the program.

“I’m passionate about serving my community and knowing that I can make a difference in a student’s life. Everyone deserves the right to learn how to read, write, and expand their creative mind. In return, being able to teach students allows me to never lose my own creative spark,” Jacobo wrote.

Iowa Youth Writing Project directors said they’ve noticed a surge in participation when local public schools returned to in-person learning, and  these numbers are comparable to pre-pandemic numbers.

The heightened positive atmosphere returned to campus in fall 2021 when college students returned to partially in-person classes. Just like college students, Iowa City youth want to connect with their peers and engage with community visitors.

As they head into the latter part of the 2022-2023 school year, Iowa Youth Writing Project directors are looking forward to an optimistic spring and summer session.

“For me, experiential learning was and is such a valuable part of the college experience,” Associate Director Camille Socarras said.

The current site coordinator Emmlyn Dversdall, a senior at UI majoring in English and creative writing, started work with the Iowa Youth Writing Project in fall 2021.

Dversdall was drawn to the Iowa Youth Writing Project because of a passion for working with the youth.

“My favorite part is being in the classrooms with students,” Dversdall wrote in an email to the DI. “No matter what age the students are, they always bring so much joy to every meeting. Seeing students share their thoughts and watching their imaginations bloom is a one-of-a-kind experience where I’m incredibly grateful to see and help facilitate.”

One area where college student engagement can be helpful is through the college admissions essay and application program. Although this program is usually hosted during the summer programming cycle, it has not been possible to host in-person opportunities for local youth since the pandemic lockdown in March 2020.

With the directors hoping all typical Iowa Youth Writing Project programs will be up and running for the 2023 summer session, and with more schools asking for literary-based programming, the need for college aged volunteers within the Iowa Youth Writing Project has increased.

Iowa Youth Writing Project depends on college student interns and volunteers to keep the program running at its full potential.  The project has volunteer and internship opportunities during the fall and spring semesters for college students who are interested and have a passion for writing and working with children.

“You don’t need an MFA to get children excited to express themselves,” Hellman said.

There is nothing quite like knowing that what you do and have a passion for is making a tangible impact on the world. The Iowa Youth Writing Project mission becomes personal to me when I reflect on the hardships and experiences my illiterate family members face when confronted with an increasingly globalized world where the ability to read and write has become essential to survival.

Through working with organizations like the Iowa Youth Writing Project, we can all uplift and support individuals in this community on their journeys to become more engaged learners, critical thinkers, and developed writers.


Via The Daily Iowan