(IAP ’16) Nicole Miko, ’18
Nicole Miko (‘18, Brain & Cognitive Science and Management Science)
Nicole will spend IAP in Los Angeles where she’ll be working for the i.am.angel Foundation. The i.am.angel Foundation is a nonprofit trying to improve the Boyle Heights neighborhood of LA through the implementation of STEM programs in their middle and high schools. Nicole will work in the foundation headquarters during the day, helping with the business side of things and trying to foster economic partnerships for the foundation with high-level donors. She’ll also be teaching in the foundation’s after-school program. The goal of the project will be to help the foundation grow financially in order to ensure lasting resources, while at the same time making an immediate change in the lives of students by teaching them valuable skills.
Check back for her updates!
Hi, I’m Nicole and I’m a sophomore studying Brain and Cognitive Science. This IAP I’m interning with the i.am.angel foundation, and I’m about to start my second week. I.am.angel is a nonprofit in Los Angeles that’s trying to improve education for students in some of the struggling areas of LA. The foundation is Will.i.am’s nonprofit, and it’s done a ton of really meaningful work so far. It’s actually a lot smaller than you’d expect: there’s only one true employee, who obviously has a ton on her plate so I haven’t really seen her much so far. Then there’s Lilly, who’s my project supervisor and an MIT alum. She does a ton of stuff for the foundation, too, but she’s technically part of i.am.plus, which is Will.i.am’s tech company. Besides them, there are three AmeriCorps Vista volunteers who help the foundation. Myself and five other inters are working at the foundation this IAP, and since there are so few employees we feel like we can make a real difference.
One of i.am.angel’s main endeavors is helping some schools form after-school robotics teams that can compete in First Robotics competitions. These schools have really poor ratings and low test-scores, but hopefully these robotics teams can provide a supplementary education solution, exposing them to innovation and engineering. So far, we’ve helped out a middle school team. One of the biggest problems they face is that their teachers either aren’t interested in helping or don’t have the knowledge/skills to be helpful. Mentorship is a huge factor to help these kids feel passionate about their education, so it’s hard for them since they don’t really have anyone looking out for them. Utilizing our MIT backgrounds, we’re trying to be good mentors for the students, whether that involves answering questions they have about the technicalities of robotics design, or trying to instill in them an overall drive to learn and discover.
I think the problem of teachers not being adequate mentors and resources for their students is larger than we think. I spoke with one of the teachers from one of these struggling schools, and she spent several minutes telling me why I shouldn’t be a teacher, how it’s a terrible job, and how the students and the administration make everything difficult. This was a HUGE red flag to me. To give a little background, I plan on going into education after I graduate from MIT: my ultimate goal is to improve the American education system. Hearing from a teacher that she’s already given up on her students breaks my heart. I understand that it can be extremely tiring teaching in one of these difficult schools, but to totally discredit all students is appalling to me. How can any student succeed if their teacher has no faith in them?
There are a lot of things I want to accomplish during this internship. I want to help the students on our robotics teams develop useful skills and learn to believe in themselves, I want to help the foundation continue to tackle obstacles it faces. But I think what speaks to me the most, what I really want to do, is try to change the minds of some of these teachers. Don’t get me wrong, some that I’ve met are great and are doing amazing things for their community. But for the ones who can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for their students, I really want to show them that it does exist. These teachers are acting as roadblocks standing in the way of the advancement of so many students. Facing this problem head-on will hopefully have a trickle-down effect on way more students that I could individually encounter this IAP. I know this is a lofty goal, to try to change someone’s way of thinking, but I think even if I can make a small change, open their eyes a tiny bit, it will make a huge difference.
I just finished my second week with i.am.angel. I got to spend a lot of hands-on time with the kids in the programs that the foundation supports. We spent most of our week with one particular group of middle school students because their team was registered to compete in a regional robotics competition at the end of the week.
I.am.angel provides the robitcs teams from certain schools funding in order to buy their materials and travel to competitions. The foundation also tries to provide some leadership to the teams, especially for the ones who have the kind of teachers involved that I described in my last blog post. Myself and the other interns had to spend a lot of time with this one middle school team because, though they’ve had several months to prepare their robot, they were pretty much starting from scratch with one week left.
First going to the school I had pretty low expectations. I knew this middle school was struggling academically, and the teacher I had met from this school was the one who told me all of the awful things about teaching. I thought we’d be walking into a classroom unlike anything I’d ever seen before; an environment of no hope. But when we got there, it was obvious how normal everything was. The facilities were pretty nice, and the students and teachers acted the way people in every other middle school I’ve seen act. Over the next few days I worked with the students on their robot and presentation material for the competition. Spending more time with them made it even more apparent how normal everything was. You couldn’t tell that these kids were part of an ‘underperforming school’. They were smart and hardworking. Sure, they spent half the time playing on their phone trying to act too cool for everything, but that’s what every 12-year-old does. And the rest of the time they were truly engaged, they cared about their team’s performance in the looming competition and they worked to better their team.
I guess this probably shouldn’t have been, but the fact that these kids and this school seemed so normal was a big realization for me. Maybe there isn’t some huge, fundamental problem that needs fixing. Yes, these students are part of a struggling school. But from what I’ve seen, there’s really not much different between them and students at some of the top schools. Maybe adding some small things, like opportunities to explore engineering through robotics, or after-school art programs, or some college counselors, could go a long way in catching up these lagging schools. I know I mentioned how some teachers can be a big source of the problem last blog post, and I definitely still believe that, but from what I’ve seen the students are certainly capable of doing great things. Maybe a few fixes could allow these students to truly thrive, because they’re really not that far off now.
My externship is almost coming to an end, so I figured now would be a good time to reflect on my experience. Though I haven’t been here long, I do feel like I’ve been able to get a sense for how big of an impact i.am.angel has. The foundation has become a staple in the lives of many students in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. I’ve visited several schools as well as the i.am.angel CollegeTrack center in Boyle Heights City Hall. In all of these cases there have been many students taking advantage of the extra opportunities i.am.angel provides. The foundation allows these students to take Chinese, build their own robot, learn to code, and many other wonderful education explorations that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. And you can tell the kids are not just appreciative, but also better students and more responsible people because of it.
Since the foundation is so new, I haven’t been able to find concrete facts and figures that show that their programs are helping. But I think going around and seeing the students working hard and doing things they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do speaks for itself. With time I know the foundation will only continue to grow and help even more students of Boyle Heights and other struggling areas achieve their goals of high school graduation, college graduation, and overall happiness.
Unfortunately my time in LA with the i.am.angel foundation had to come to an end. Looking back makes me realize how incredibly grateful I am to the MIT Public Service Center for supporting me throughout this journey. I know I’ve probably mentioned this a bunch of times, but I want to go into education one day. Working for a company such as i.am.angel has provided me with an invaluable experience exploring the nonprofit side of education. I’ve learned that operating a nonprofit is WORK. At times it seems like everyone and everything is working against you: no one wants to help out, no one wants to put in the time and energy that it takes to implement change, and many find it hard to keep in mind the long-term benefits of a good education when there are short-term inconveniences.
But I’m sure like many others at MIT, the fact that this route is an uphill battle excites me. It only makes me more eager to get to work. Especially since the impact you can have is unfathomable. In my four weeks with i.am.angel I saw kids go from uninterested in pretty much everything to truly passionate about their robot and about engineering in general. I can’t even imagine how changed for the better the lives of some of these students will be because of the foundation. How many will be motivated to be the first in their family to go to college, how many will become prominent members of their field one day. It’s incredible. And I think with more experiences like this, and more preparation from my studies at MIT, I can help make a difference in childrens’ education the way i.am.angel does. Who knows, maybe i.am.angel will continue to expand and years from now you’ll see me there hosting my own externs 😉