How remarkable students turn into community leaders

Bank of America Austin Student Leaders

What helps remarkable young people become community leaders?

First, what makes students remarkable in the first place: Support. A young person’s success is much more likely if they are surrounded by a family and community that cares for them and cheers them on. But to direct them to leadership, these students need opportunity — learning experiences, mentoring and room to make mistakes.

And this is why the Austin Bank of America Student Leaders® are so special.  For the past ten years, five high school students from across Central Texas, selected as Student Leaders, have participated in a paid internship administered by Communities in Schools (CIS) and funded by Bank of America.  They’ve also traveled to Washington, D. C. to convene with other remarkable student leaders from across the country.

Students committed to community

The program is open to students within and outside of the Title 1 (public schools with a high percentage of low-income students) schools CIS serves, and that’s by design.

“We get a great mix of students because part of the program requires applicants to demonstrate community service in addition to academic success,” says Nikki Graham, Austin market president for Bank of America. “That’s the way the program was envisioned. The premise was to look at students who have well rounded experience both academically and in their community.

“We also look for a cohort that reflects a diversity of opinion and experience,” Graham continues. “My feeling is that the students have as much to learn from each other as they do from the program.”

In fact, just about anyone could learn a thing or two from these students. Graham describes high school applicants who have spent time working in food pantries or with homeless people. One applicant taught science to younger students in elementary school, a program of their own creation. Another started a nonprofit on their own and another interned in the office of Mayor Steve Adler.

Hands-on experience

Once selected, the students spend the summer on a paid internship, first by working at CIS’s ASPIRE Family Literacy program directly with children and families. That program helps parents and their children improve their literacy and reading proficiency so that parents can better support their children’s school work at home.

“During the first part of the internship, the students are working directly with youth served by CIS. They are seeing firsthand the strengths, need and challenges of students who are considered at-risk of dropping out of school,” says CIS director of community engagement Debra Joiner.

Finlay Scanlon (second from right, above), a recent Student Leader, says her experience at ASPIRE solidified her passion for people. “Families who were homeless, refugees, or living in poverty came together for one common goal. They had the ambition to empower themselves. I’ve learned that I have immense appreciation for other people’s knowledge and stories. I met single mothers who had a 6th grade education in Afghanistan but had the resilience to move their entire family across the ocean.”

For the second half of the summer, the Student Leaders work at CIS’s Central Office across all areas of the organization – the Elementary team, the CEO and Chief Program Officer, and the volunteer department.

Another Student Leader, Robby Joseph (center) says his work at CIS helped him understand how nonprofits work. “I learned to work and get along with people from different backgrounds and different circumstances and complete fun projects with them. I’ve made many connections.”

But a highlight of the program may well be the all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. for the annual Student Leaders Summit.

Students go through leadership training, hear from renowned speakers and leaders of national nonprofits and even participate in a service project while they’re there. In addition, they’re taken to the Capitol to meet their representatives.

When they return, the students are more motivated than ever to take on community challenges. Graham describes one student who has gone on to become an entrepreneur starting several businesses, and another who went on to work for the U.S. Secretary of Education, then at the Austin Chamber, and is now earning an MBA at the UT-Austin McCombs School of Business, interning at Starbucks this past summer.

There’s also the student who grew up in Austin’s Santa Rita Courts public housing, attended the prestigious Bowdoin College in Maine and is now working at the Capitol.

Graham says, “When they finish this program, they’re all just profoundly changed.”

This past summer, Bank of America announced a $40 million commitment to connect 100,000 teens and young adults through the Student Leaders program and other programs across the country that partner with nonprofits to provide young people with training and opportunity.

“When you work with young people in education and our foundation priority is around workforce and education, I think it’s really to put our money where our mouth is,” says Graham. “We’re very passionate about the success of young people. We feel like it’s giving them an opportunity to develop their skills and then go out and change the world.”


Here’s a great way to support the work of Communities in Schools! Attend its annual Food for Thought event, September 21, 2016, at ACL Live. Tickets still available and fantastic live auction items up for bid now! Learn more. 

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