(Summer ’18) Mercedes Ondik ’18

Week 0: Let’s Drum Preparation

Hi.  My name is Mercedes Ondik, first time blogger…  first time a lot of things, actually.  Blogger name, Drummergirl, for reasons which you will soon understand.  This post is the first chapter of an exciting new adventure I’m about to embark on.  You see, I’m about to graduate in only eleven days, and then there are very few limits to what is possible next.  However, this fellowship opportunity is the perfect place to start.

This summer, between mid-June and late August, I will be interning at the YWCA in Green Bay, Wisconsin, not far from where I was born and raised.  You may be thinking, but what kind of exciting adventures occur near home?  You’re safe and everything’s familiar.  Where’s the risk, where is the adventure?  Well, to that I say, this summer I will be working with young girls, 3rd through 8th grade, through the YWCA’s Techgyrls initiative.  I am incredibly excited, but I know I have so much to learn, and there will be challenges around every corner.  Furthermore, I will be developing a program of my own to complement the goals of Techgyrls, and starting in late July, I will be implementing a 5 week program teaching a group of 10 or 11 girls Senegalese drumming!  After this summer, I will be pursuing a Ph.D. to study the cause of debilitating neurodegenerative diseases, but I will be donating 11 drums to the YWCA in hopes of the programs’ continuation.

Techgyrls has been following a STEM approach to get young women excited about science, technology, engineering, and math.  Now, this approach is being adapted into Running on STEAM to include the arts.  I feel incredibly honored to participate and help spearhead this effort, and even offer a new program to be added to the repetoire of new arts to offer these girls.  At MIT, I recently completed the requirements for a joint major in biology and chemistry and handed in my undergraduate thesis in brain and cognitive sciences, but never has music not been a part of my life.  I strongly believe that music has the ability to shape our moods, revitalize our energies, and touch a place in our souls.  It is perhaps the closest thing on Earth to magic, or perhaps it is magic, and I for one could not imagine a world without it.  From my own personal experiences, I’ve felt science become overwhelming, the problems get too tough, and I’ve felt like giving up.  But in those times of doubt, playing my guitar or going to my Senegalese drumming class has always lifted my spirits and revitalized me for another day of work.  I know first hand how rewarding a life in STEM can be, but more than that, I know the vivacity that STEM fields gain when art is added.  These girls may not know it yet, but this program, Techgyrls Running on STEAM is an absolute blessing and I am so excited to be a part of it.

I have a lot of hopes for my role in this program.  I hope to leave a long lasting impact on the girls that I work with.  I hope to serve as a role model for them, to share my story and give them hope that there is a place for them in this world.  I hope to bring joy and light to my students and show them the magic in drumming.  I hope that the act of drumming itself brings release for pent up energy, relaxation, and empowerment.  I also hope to bring exposure of a new culture, of Senegal, to my students’ lives.  I think the opportunities for this program and my part in it are endless and the fruits of my labor to be, unpredictable.  I hope for strength and courage as I begin this new journey, and I look forward to all that I am about to learn.

In a month or so, I will have started my journey and should have some updates!

Until then… For your amusement and daily dosage of musical magic: Little Drummer Boy by Pentatonix.


Signing off,




Week 6: Recapping on Let’s Drum progress; my ah-ha moment

DrummerGirl signing on.

I am currently taking a break from a day of teaching drumming here at the YWCA. So much has happened and changed since my last few days at MIT. Where to even begin?! I purchased my 11 drums: 1 tall flat bottomed drum called “Chole”, 7 medium sized hollow bottomed drums called “Bungbung”, and 1 short and 2 shorter hollow bottomed drums called “Too-r-né”. Each one is absolutely gorgeous with painting or various carvings, words, and colorful cords and scarves around the outside. Transporting them has required some improvisation and learning on my part but they all fit in the back of an SUV and they stack nicely allowing for transport via cart.

A week before my internship began, I met my supervisor, the YWCA’s CEO, Ms. Renita Robinson. Her energy and light excited me and calmed my nervousness. During our first meeting, I got a tour, and was shown the room I would be teaching in. The first few weeks of my internship actually involved more cleaning than drumming. The room which I was placed in had been used as a classroom for young children in an after school program. Crayons, papers, legos, and other miscellaneous objects were strewn across tables and floor tiles. When I returned for my first day of work, I began the cleaning process. Luckily, the person who had been teaching in that room, Tonie, wandered in on the first day, and was able to help me clear out the space over the next three weeks. Other tasks at the YWCA included making flyers, contacting community members who might be interested in one time drumming sessions, designing my 5 week program, Let’s Drum, and coordinating with Tonie, and their program director, Michelle, to put my classes into the camp schedule.

During the second week of my internship, I spent each morning at the Pulaski school district’s summer school. At the YWCA, I continued preparing for the beginning of Let’s Drum, and even taught a one time session in the gym for Green Bay’s Kids’ Day. In Pulaski, more learning than teaching occurred. There, I found myself serendipitously observing a hand drumming class from 8-9 30AM and then helping with the Summer Success group for kids with cognitive disabilities until noon or 1PM. During my first day in Pulaski, the local news station was doing a segment on Pulaski’s summer school program and the hand drumming class was of particular interest to them. Just by chance, I ended up on the morning news playing a short song called “Peter, Peter”. The instructor, Mr. Pierre, gave me great ideas about how I would run my own classroom, what kids of various ages might be capable of learning, and advice for establishing authority as a teacher. When working with the kids in the Summer Success program, I got to know each child individually, who worked well with who, and each persons’ individual strengths and anxieties. I took what I learned from him and on Friday of that week, I taught a 20 minute lesson in the hand drumming class followed by a one hour session at Summer Success. This first series of drumming lessons happen to coincide with my birthday, and I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better day. The feeling that washed over me after seeing the kids respond to my classes with excitement and after watching them thrive and catch on to the rhythms was incredible.

I was sad for the summer school week to end, but I was excited for what the next few weeks were to bring. During my third week of my internship, Tonie helped me record an interview in which they asked me questions and I responded, telling my potential viewers about my background, where the idea of drumming came from, and what my classes (which began July 25th) were going to look like. The interview has been posted on the YWCA’s family Facebook page for parents to learn about this new program their kids might be participating in.

As I prepared to begin teaching, I learned that I would be teaching both boys and girls, who were enrolled in Camp Downtown at the YWCA, some of which were a part of the TechGyrls program I had initially intended to work with. So I began working with Tonie to successfully carry out Camp Downtown events and start meeting some of the students and their teachers. Once we solidified our schedule for the campers to drum with me two times a week and flyers were made announcing two community sessions I plan to do in August (August 8th and August 22nd), I went on a two week vacation out West, bringing my drums along with me. Throughout the two weeks, I drummed everywhere: at peoples’ houses we visited, at campgrounds, on the side of the road, and in the car. That trip filled me with motivation and charisma that I couldn’t wait to share with the kids.
When I returned to the YWCA this week, I spent two days carving sticks to drum with, and preparing my curriculum for the campers. Both Monday and Tuesday, I was able to spend in Pulaski with the Summer Success group again. This time, I brought in drums so all of the kids could play at the same time (whereas the first time, I had only brought in two small drums which we passed around and shared). For an entire hour, the kids were captivated. We played Disney songs to drum along to such as the Jungle Book and The Lion Sleeps Tonight. We took turns, and shared drums to play together. Kids who sometimes don’t respond to the teachers at all (verbally or non-verbally) were swaying with the beat. It was truly an incredibly experience. I took that energy and carried it with me when I began my classes at the YWCA this last Wednesday.

During our first classes, everyone from every class came to their times (9AM for 9-12 year olds, 10AM for 7-8 year olds, and 3PM for 5-6 year olds) There were anywhere from eight to seventeen kids in each of my three classes (a lot more than I had expected). We watched a video (MIT Rambax) on YouTube which showed students from the 2017 Senegalese drumming group at MIT traveling to Senegal to experience the culture and advance their drumming skills. Then I taught about the drums and we tried out some basic rhythms. My 5-6 year olds even spent some time dancing to the beat. Today and onward, students will come on a voluntary basis, and are free to sit out. It is my desire that they feel free to participate or not so that everyone sitting at the drums is cultivating a positive and safe atmosphere. Today (Friday), my 9-12 year olds are already on their way to knowing an entire, slightly complex rhythm that I learned in my own beginner’s Rambax class at MIT. I am so excited to see where these kids go with these classes.

In my free time, I helped in the kitchen making lunch for the campers and learning their schedules and how many kids were in each age group. I also began vision casting with my supervisor, Renita. She and I imagined Let’s Drum as something that could continue into the Fall and also be incorporated into the Women’s Empowerment Conference the YWCA will be hosting in October. In the Fall, TechGyrls meet at the YWCA once a month, and it is our intention to focus one day, November 17th, particularly on drumming and how music can tie into a life of science, math, engineering, etc. On October 19th, I am preparing to carry out an empowerment through drumming workshop for middle school to high school aged girls. Additionally, if the community sessions go well, I hope to run a weekly drumming class for adults in the Green Bay community. Furthermore, I am working with Golden House, a safety house for women who have experienced domestic violence, to hold empowerment sessions with the drums as well. If these events continue to bring success, I hope to reach out to the Cerebral Palsy Center in the Fall and begin volunteering there as well in hopes of bringing the fun and positive energy of drumming to them.

My Ah-ha moment really came in the middle of all of this craziness.  I took two weeks to travel out West in mid-July and during that time, I met various people along the way.  Each time, I would describe what it is I was doing.  One person in particular worked with people in the community, kids in particular, who were struggling from family trauma.  She said that these kids would really benefit from something like what I am doing at the YWCA.  The Ah-ha was more of a feeling than a thought.  It felt like I was doing something incredible that could truly have a positive impact on the people I work with.  But it really does seem time and time again, in my discussions with people outside of what I’m doing, I feel affirmation that what I do matters and that I’m offering a really cool experience to these kids.  I am so excited for what is yet to come!

There are so many opportunities and possibilities; I never run out of things to do. Check in at the end of August to see how my class ends up and what crazy things I might be onto next (including applying for a VISA to move to Australia while applying for my Ph.D. and scholarships to carry out research in Auckland, New Zealand!)

Signing off,



Week 9: Impact of and lessons learned from implementing Let’s Drum


DrummerGirl signing on.


Today, I taught the eighth of ten sessions of my program, Let’s Drum.  My kids are picking up on new rhythms faster than ever.  Each kid has unique strengths and weaknesses.  Some are shy or maybe intimidated by others who have unbounded energy.  Others are bursting with stories, comments, improvised rhythms of their own!  There are also challenges that we face as a class.  Frustration is a big one.  When rhythms that are difficult are repeated it can sometimes feel like someone’s breathing down you neck saying you’re not good enough.  I wish I had more time with these kids to tell them that they’re doing such an amazing job! The rhythms they are learning are tough! And they impress me every day.  I try to say these things during every session, but I wonder if they actually hear and believe what I say.

When I talk with community members about what I am doing, I hear a lot of positive feedback.  Adults understand that Senegalese drumming and Senegalese culture are two things that very few people in the area of Green Bay, Wisconsin ever get to experience.  I think my class is generally perceived as a unique experience that these kids will remember for the rest of their lives.  I hope for some of the kids that I can be, if only one, one person that lets them know someone believes in them, that they can do it, and that it’s okay to make mistakes.  But if they don’t remember these lessons, I hope to leave them with fond memories of that interesting lady who let them play her expensive drums which was actually pretty fun.

Today, we had the neatest time.  I brought the drums outside to the park and had the kids meet me there (with their teachers).  We played in a circle while sitting on park benches in the shade.  After my 7-8 year old group was done playing, the toddlers came out with their teacher to enjoy the sun, and the teacher asked if the toddlers could try out the drums.  Some of them took to the drums immediately!  They made really cool rhythms while others were shy and didn’t know what to do.  After about 5 or 10 minutes, all the toddlers were each playing their own drum.  Some of them even tried out playing with a stick.  It was really a cool site to see; some of the kids playing their very first instrument, and it brought a smile to each toddler’s face.

Something that I am learning more and more with each class is how peer pressure and wanting to do what others are doing affects how kids behave.  It influences what they like to do, if they choose to participate or not, where they sit… Every aspect of their lives.  In my 7-8 year old group, every single kid has participated/likes to participate at least sometimes.  However, in my 9-12 year old group, only 2 of more than 10 students tend to join my class per day.  My class is optional because it allows those who genuinely want to drum to drum without interruptions from other students who couldn’t care less.  But with the older groups, I think there are students who would really enjoy drumming who decide not to… so they can stay by their friends?  So they don’t get picked on?  So they don’t appear to be different in any way?  So they don’t embarrass themselves?  At what age do we stop taking chances?  If it’s 10 years old, does that mean we stop challenging ourselves at 10 years old or stop cultivating our unique abilities?  To avoid the fear of being different?  I have more questions than answers.  It just feels to me that something is wrong.

I think the enjoyment of music is something that connects almost every person with every other person in the entire world.  I think drumming is one of the most innate musical abilities that exists.  I see it everywhere: when people tap their feet, tap their fingers on the steering wheel to the radio, clap or snap to their favorite song, or use kitchen utensils as drum sticks.  So, I could chalk lack of participation up to mean that over 10 of the 9-12 year olds genuinely are not interested by drumming, but I believe with my entire body and soul that this is not the truth.

This is not to say that drumming is a quintessential part of their childhood experience and those who don’t participate will somehow be lacking for not having come to my class.  However, how many more experiences are these kids missing/going to miss out on?  How many adults think back on their middle school and high school experiences and wish they could have joined a different club or took a chance on a new hobby or a different class?  How many of us are even still friends with those people who influenced us in such a way that we left behind amazing and cool opportunities?  But more importantly, how do we as adults help the next generation(s) of kids to break through this oppressive cycle?

Today for instance, in my 7-8 year old class.  I started out with 11 kids who wanted to drum, but one girl sat out.  By the end of the class, only 6 kids remained.  The rest had joined the first in sitting out.  As the group not participating got larger and larger it became clear that some of the kids who were drumming wanted to be with their friends, wanted to be talking/chatting, and were done paying attention, were done challenging themselves.

Perhaps another difficulty that I have not yet conquered is teaching others endurance.  I remember, myself, sitting in my Senegalese drumming class wishing for the end of the lesson (1.5 hours was a long time after a full day of classes).  It is hard to try difficult rhythms over and over again only to move on to another hard rhythm.  But it’s being able to play more difficult rhythms that is the most rewarding.  It is those things in life that are hard that are worth working for.  Again, I find myself wishing for more time with these kids.

I have learned so so much from each and every one of these kids.  And although I feel like I have more questions left over than answers, I know this experience will make me a more effective teacher, friend, parent, etc. now and into my future (i.e. I’m not yet a parent).  I think these sessions have laid an important foundation for me to be able to understand people of all ages and hopefully for how to help people, help them learn, grow, adapt to difficult circumstances, and fully be themselves.

Although next week is the last week of my fellowship, I am happy to say that I will be continuing my work here at the YWCA until the beginning of December.  I will be taking the lessons I have learned and I will grow as an educator.  Furthermore, the impact that Let’s Drum has had on these kids is only half of what I will be able to do for the city of Green Bay.  I will be using my position as a drummer to volunteer at the cerebral palsy center, bring the drums to weekly sessions at Golden House for women who have experienced domestic violence, bring music to the YWCA’s annual female empowerment conference, and work with the Techgyrls program to talk about the science and engineering involved in making sound throughout this fall.

As I may have said before, I am so excited for what is yet to come.  It seems that Let’s Drum is only the beginning.


DrummerGirl signing off.


Week 11: I’ve finished my Fellowship-Time to Reflect

DrummerGirl signing on.

The last ten weeks have been a blur.  If you’ve been following me, you know my intentions for this summer have been ambitious.  Well, I have reached the end of the chapter and can now reflect on everything the YWCA, my supervisor, Renita, and I have accomplished.

First and foremost, we’ve successfully delivered a 5 week Senegalese culture and drumming program, Let’s Drum, to kids of the YWCA from 5-9 years old.  In addition to the classes themselves, this accomplishment included an interview which was shared with children’s parents previewing my work and a final performance for the parents at the End of Summer picnic.

In supplement to Let’s Drum, I was able to bring the power of Senegalese drumming to members of the Green Bay and surrounding area.  This included women who’ve experienced domestic violence and, on a second occasion, their children through a collaboration with Golden House in Green Bay, WI.  I also brought Senegalese drums into the classroom to have kids with cognitive disabilities experience the fun and magic of the culture and experience of Senegalese drumming through a collaboration with Pulaski School District’s summer program, Summer Success.  Additionally, I held two community drumming sessions during which I observed three best friends enjoy their weekly night out together, a family learn a new activity, and an elderly woman play an instrument for the first time.

The work that I have accomplished this summer has absolutely changed my outlook on everyday life.  I have a deepened love for individuality and the quirks that every person has and often hides from the world.  In working with Golden House and Summer Success, my eyes have been opened to some deep seeded reasons for injustices that occur between populations.  In teaching Let’s Drum, I’ve seen the struggles that go on in the minds of students from the other side, from the teacher’s seat.  I see myself now more than ever as being a capable and passionate educator.  I also have observed myself fly wide open with passion, love, and the desire to share and to help others open up to their genuine and vulnerable true selves.  This opportunity has challenged me beyond what I had imagined, but it has shown me parts of myself that have been waiting beneath the surface to be seen.  It is my duty to make sure that whatever I do in this world does not hide that woman I found inside myself but instead shares her with the world every single day.

In working with Golden House, I spent days learning about domestic violence, both physical and mental.  This affected me in a deep way that made me reflect on my past and question if perhaps my future might somehow involve volunteering or working in a place like Golden House.  Beyond career considerations, this study helped me gain clarity from experiences that I and others near me have had.  It also increased my empathy and respect toward the women I taught drumming to, which I believe, helped me become a more effective teacher.

Working in Pulaski, at the YWCA, and volunteering at Golden House gave me experience that has fostered confidence as I pass from a drumming instructor at the YWCA to being a certified substitute teacher in a variety of school districts this fall.  I believe my one time sessions, especially, will help guide me as I enter foreign classrooms and attempt to gain the attention and respect of my students with the intent of passing on knowledge to them.

Although I am moving on to my next job, my time at the YWCA is not yet complete.  One more major accomplishment of my time at the Y is the strengthened relationship Renita and I have created that will allow us to continue sharing Senegalese drumming with members of the Green Bay area.  I hope to offer weekly community drumming sessions for a period throughout this fall.  I will also be creating a workshop to offer middle and high school girls during the Female Empowerment Conference hosted by the YWCA on October 19th.  Other drumming related activities I hope to participate in include a day for women from Golden House that will be hosted at the Y on October 20th, the TechGyrls monthly Saturday sessions at the Y, after-school sessions for children at the Y, and one time or bi-weekly drumming sessions/volunteering at the Cerebral Palsy Center in Green Bay.

In the last ten weeks, as I’ve been learning about myself, about working with people of all ages and abilities, I’ve decided that I am not ready yet to begin my Ph.D.  Instead, I will be taking one more year to carry out an overseas experience (OE) in Australia.  There I hope to explore, see things I’ve never seen before but also become a part of the community, volunteer, perhaps even teach drum lessons.  I want to continue meeting people, hearing their stories, and sorting out what my next purpose might be on my journey.


Signing off for the final time,



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