Michelle Kytta, an IU South Bend alumna and a teacher at the South Bend Career Academy had just agreed to take over the National Honor Society (NHS) at her school and found, amid the pandemic, that she would have to build the program nearly from scratch. As luck would have it, her student teacher that fall was in the IU South Bend Honors Program and that student connected Kytta with Honors Program Director Dr. Neovi Karakatsanis.
Now, the Honors Program is advising and supporting Kytta as she works to establish a vibrant NHS. In addition, Career Academy and Honors Program students collaborated on several efforts during the pandemic school year, including a visit by Career Academy students to campus, letter-writing campaigns to front-line workers during the pandemic, and a book drive for the Career Academy’s sister elementary school, the Success Academy.
“Part of our mission on campus is to reach out to the community, including young people in the community, help educate them, and provide them with a worldview that is broadened through their interaction with us,” Karakatsanis said. “So, I think this was a perfect opportunity to do that. To have this one-on-one connection with young people in the community for whom college is so achievable. We hope to continue this collaboration with the Academy, but also with other schools in the area as well.”
For Kytta, the guidance with Karakatsanis was helpful because she is particularly interested in helping her students at the charter school be more involved and build on the NHS values, called pillars. The four pillars are Everyday Scholarship, Everyday Service, Everyday Leadership, and Everyday Character.
“I’m just trying to build up the National Honor Society here and get the kids involved in the community because I’d like them to get a sense of community and start enforcing the four pillars of the National Honor Society,” said Kytta, who was an NHS member when she was in high school. “I feel like there’s a lack of connection with the youth of today and their community. I want them to want to help others and to always aspire to be better. It’s so often that you hear people complain about society. I feel like I need to be part of the solution instead of staying on the sidelines and I hope my students learn this.”
The pandemic, she said, made it difficult for her students to maintain connections to the community—both each other and to the broader community. NHS activities help build those ties.
That was true of the Honors Program students as well. The pandemic restrictions made it difficult to even meet on campus, much less participate in service activities in the area. To bridge the gap, Karakatsanis said, Honors Program student leaders decided to work together to send thank-you letters and cards to pandemic front-line workers, including health care workers and military. The students contacted organizations to gauge interest in receiving letters and coordinated the writing campaign and delivery of bundles of letters to those organizations. Karakatsanis said that other IU South Bend faculty had reported seeing the cards and letters posted at those organizations.
“The students loved it,” Karakatsanis said. “I think it was at a time when they were feeling like any little thing they could do to say thank you, or to encourage an essential worker really gave them a sense of well-being; that they were doing something important.”
Katherine Cassel, a senior majoring in nursing and an officer in the Honors Program, said thanking front-line workers was important to her because they had faced the brunt of the effects of COVID.
“Frontline workers were non-stop throughout the entire pandemic,” Cassel said. “They dealt with the most of it and they risked their lives and their livelihoods by trying to take care of everybody that had contracted the virus and so I wanted to do something to say thank you.”
Paige Closson, who just graduated with a degree in finance, helped facilitate the letter-writing campaign as a student coordinator. Closson noted that the letter-writing effort was particularly important because the pandemic made it difficult for students to find opportunities for community service that is required of students because few organizations were taking volunteers.
“I love seeing the students of the Program being able to actively participate because we struggled so hard to try to find things for them to do,” Closson said. “So, this was a really fun way that our students could still be involved if they came to pick up stationary and drop off letters when they actually got to come to campus, and we got to see them and check in with them and talk for a minute and empathize like ‘I know things are weird right now’.”
Karakatsanis also shared information about the project with Kytta, who worked with her students to do a similar letter-writing campaign.
Later in the school year, Career Academy students joined Honors Program students for an online YouTube party to watch the documentary Chasing Coral with Dr. Ann Grens, Associate Professor of Molecular & Developmental Biology, for an introduction and questions and answers. Karakatsanis said that during the pandemic, the YouTube party was a way to get students together even though they could not meet in person often.
“We had hoped that there could be more face-to-face interaction between our students and her students, and we’re hoping that this year there actually will be more of that,” she said. However, Kytta’s students were able to meet with Honors students when a small group visited in February. They had a tour of campus and met with a group of Honors students who talked to them about college life and resources on campus—and that college could be an option for them if they chose it. (They each left with an Honors Program t-shirt, water bottle, and cinch bag!)
Also in the spring, Kytta started a campaign with her students to build a library for their sister elementary school, the Success Academy, and IU South Bend Honors Program students joined in on the effort. Together, all the students raised about $900 through a GoFundMe campaign and gathered about 2,000 books for the library.
For Kytta and Karakatsanis, the collaboration was an opportunity to help build not just a strong NHS program for the Career Academy, but to bolster community when students at all levels were feeling a strong disconnect because of the pandemic. They hope that the collaboration is just the start of building more community ties, particularly through joint service.
For students Cassel and Closson, that service is what makes the soul of the Honors Program.
“The service portion of the Honors Program helps teach students to be selfless and helps teach students to be humble,” Cassel said. She described a period of being homeless as a younger person and said it was important for students to learn that they can help others without being judgmental, particularly those students who are used to having a strong safety net.
“Everybody in the Honors Program is studying, studying, studying, working hard, working hard, working hard, that they might forget to take time to look at the world around them,” she said. “And many Honors students are going to be in leadership positions (in the future), so it helps with learning humility so that if you’re leading a team you would be able to keep in mind that they also have families and they also have other responsibilities to ensure it’s a workable position for everybody.”
Closson said she views the service component of the Honors Program as “the center of the Honors Program and the ideals of what the Program wants to achieve because service not only provides for others, but also is very reflective for yourself. You can have a lot of appreciation for the work that you do and have a sense of pride for serving others.”
Getting involved in the community is a benefit in itself, she said, increasing a sense of personal fulfillment. It also helps build connections that could help you personally or professionally in the future.
“We have tons of students who do far more than the 10 hours required every semester because they truly learn to enjoy it,” Closson said. “They see the value and then see how it affects them and makes them more appreciative for everything they have.”