Published: March 7, 2014

Two things set the University of Colorado Boulder's Public Achievement program apart from other service learning and civic engagement initiatives: mentorship and empowerment.

“The public achievement motto is ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,’” Director Elaina Verveer said.  “It essentially means that we can’t expect elected officials, we can’t expect adults, we can’t expect ‘experts’ to solve our problems. What we need to do is tap into our existing capacities, our existing talents to build social capital and work collectively with others to find common solutions.”

Considered by many the beating heart of the PA program, Verveer has been an instructor with CU-Boulder’s INVST Community Studies since 2004 and helped establish the program in 2007 at CU-Boulder and participating K-12 schools (Centaurus High School, Casey Middle School and Pioneer Elementary School). Originally founded in 1990 at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota, the program is an international civic engagement initiative that seeks to empower young people through student to student mentorship and exploration of public issues the students themselves identify.

“What is unique here is that you have college students serving as mentors, rather than traditional teachers,” said Verveer. “And the other piece is that our program taps into both community organizing and empowering pedagogy, or empowering education.”

Kenny Nguyen was mentored through the program and is now mentoring other students. A CU-Boulder sophomore majoring in communication, he oversees student coaches at Casey Middle School in Boulder. 

“PA allowed me to become a leader in my school,” Nguyen said. “That’s the big thing about PA. It empowers youth, mainly high schoolers, or middle schoolers, and at times elementary schoolers. I fell into it on my own, because I’ve always wanted to give back to the community.”

Nguyen is working with a group of female 6th grade students who proposed a project on teen pregnancy. Other students are exploring topics like animal abuse, teen depression and suicide, drug abuse, texting and driving, youth homelessness, gun violence and human trafficking. All of the topics were chosen by K-12 students.

About 80 CU-Boulder undergraduates participate in the Public Achievement program, which is administered through CU-Boulder's Institute for Ethical and Civic Engagement. About 60 are enrolled in the freshman course where they act as PA coaches to K-12 students, while the other 20 students are teaching assistants -- like Nguyen -- who mentor the coaches at their offsite locations. Though many participating “coaches” are PA alumni – students who were first exposed to CU’s PA program in high school – the course is open to all CU students. Currently, about 250 local K-12 students are involved in the program.

“The coaches, or college students, are only involved as facilitators,” said Nguyen. “They’re not there to lead. So the kids are the ones who lead.”