Project Youth

Dean McGovern, Executive Director, Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, University of Utah

January 25, 2018

In 1998 University of Utah student Deborah Hannan and a friend were talking about their futures and the role college played in achieving their goals. They wondered what happened to children who didn’t have the same opportunities and encouragement they had.  That sparked an idea. What if we encouraged children from underserved communities to imagine college by giving them a taste of a college experience? What if we invited school kids to campus for a daylong experience of classes, laboratories, and activities? Her idea became Project Youth, an annual campus visit for sixth-graders that combined mentoring from college students with learning activities by faculty and a big dose of fun school spirit.

The Bennion Center has sponsored Project Youth every year since then. In 2017 one thousand children from Title 1 schools in the Salt Lake valley participated. So did 27 professors, freely donating their time and their expertise to light the fire of imagination by delivering short courses just for children. And guiding the elementary students across campus and into classrooms were 147 University of Utah students, chatting all the way about what college is like, why they picked the U, and what they hope to do with their degrees.

Project Youth took 1600 hours to plan and execute in 2017 – but it represents the Bennion Center’s commitment to not only making our community stronger but connecting our students to the community in a meaningful way.  Deborah Hannan has long since graduated. But she hasn’t forgotten the program she created. She shared this about her experience:

 “What I learned most clearly from Project Youth is that a good idea is not enough. It takes lots of work to give an idea life. From the first conversation with the U president, to inviting elementary schools, to recruiting student volunteers and faculty, to identifying sponsors to get funding—it took time and energy.   As students, we had to overcome fear of rejection.  We had to sell the idea with the conviction. We had to keep our vision in mind and keep faith that it would actually come together. It still seems a little remarkable to me today that it actually did work and that people responded the way they did. It was incredible how many people contributed their time and effort to make it happen.

“At the end of the day, the story of Project Youth is the same as the story of the Bennion Center, which is the same as the story of every worthwhile endeavor. It is ultimately a story of inspiration, faith, and persistence. It’s a tried and true formula to be sure, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until the Bennion Center helped me experience it first hand by giving me the opportunity to take an idea and run with it. It was a simple idea, but one we thought could make a difference. As I reflect back now, I wonder what has happened to that first group of 2000 kids that came to campus. Did it actually make a difference? I know for sure it made a difference in at least one person’s life – mine.”

Indeed, the program did make a difference to more than just one person. Bryce Williams was the Bennion Center staff member responsible for supervising the students who planned the 2017 version of Project Youth. The first time Bryce ever dreamed college could be in his future was as a sixth grader attending Project Youth.  Today Bryce holds a master’s degree in educational leadership. He recalled, “The most rewarding part of leading Project Youth is being able to give back to the community I’ve come from,” he says. “It’s kind of my way to say thank you and allow me to pay it forward.” 

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