Finding Deep Joy: Helping to Build Community at Minerva

Nov 23, 2017

Student programing at most colleges typically involves sporadically-held pizza nights and alcohol safety talks where attendance varies from very few to full capacity of unenthused participants — those compelled only by the “mandatory” stipulation on the invitation. While programs like these can be informative and may catalyze community bonding, more often than not the potential is unrealized and true communities are developed through un-official happenstance — if at all.

Minerva strives to take a different and intentional approach to programming. The Student Experience team thoughtfully designs activities that are enjoyable, educationally beneficial, and culturally-relevant to each city. Going bowling is fun. Learning about recycling is important. But partnering with a local organizations to design creative real-world solutions for systematic and institutional challenges is significant.

“I feel very humbled and lucky to be a part of a community where students are so eager to learn and grow from one another,” Audry Welch, Community Development Manager, enthusiastically explains. “I believe we’re in a hub of being able to curate and cultivate our legacy in this world asking ourselves, ‘How does this really matter?’” Impassioned with empowering youth voices, Audry is dedicated to creating robust community building experiences at Minerva, and you can immediately understand her excitement when speaking with her. More importantly, her ideas go beyond superficial beliefs. They turn into actions.

A member of the Student Experience team based in San Francisco, Audry curates character and community building for first-year students. One of the projects she oversees is Minerva Talks, a weekly gathering that occurs on Monday nights at 9pm where students have the opportunity to tell their stories to a small audience of their peers. Sometimes the Talks are light and humorous, highlighting the triumphs and successes of their lives, and other times they have been solemn and emotionally vulnerable, portraying struggle and resilience. Whatever the subject, Minerva Talks allow students to open up to their classmates in a deeper, more intimate way than possible in the classroom. “When you get a chance to hear someone’s personal journey, you get a chance to understand their unique view of the world and gain a deeper understanding of their culture and very unique personal worldview,” Audry describes. College is often the first time students live away from home and with people from vastly different communities and cultural backgrounds. By pushing past initial differences that may alienate them from one another, students can find important similarities with their peers and form lifelong friendships.

Another tradition Audry leads is Friendsgiving, an annual event in the Fall where students gather to celebrate friendships and give thanks to one another. Right before Fall Break, students cook an autumnal feast, break bread, and perform for one another to culminate a successful first-half of the semester. For first-years, this is the first large community gathering since arriving in San Francisco. Through spontaneous speeches and group hugs, students are able to look back at how close they have become in just a few months, somewhat mystified that the promise of friends-becoming-family has actually held true.

Audry’s path to Minerva has followed a constant theme: finding ways to empower youth. She has worked as a high school English teacher, a therapeutic coordinator in a juvenile corrections facility for teenaged girls, and a case manager for at-risk youth, just to name a few of the positions she has held. At each one, she focused on supporting youth through compassion, creativity, and expression to help understand their needs and prevent significant trauma. “I think being a youth is more difficult than it seems in this world,” Audry advises. “The experience of growing up in a world in which you want your skills to be acknowledged, is [difficult].”

Like the other young adults Audry has worked with, Minerva’s students are also searching for their own way to express themselves in the vast, often awkward, stressful, and complex world. It takes time to build social and emotional intelligence, and these competencies thrive best in supportive and, simultaneously, challenging environmentals. For Audry, supporting their dreams means helping students find their voices to enter courageous conversations, preparing them for leadership opportunities, and developing agency in their lives.

By helping catalyze friendships between classmates, the Student Experience team is also able to help students effectively build relationships with the external community. With the empathetic skills and self-awareness built from practice at Minerva, students are better prepared to connect with the people of San Francisco, as well as other cities around the world. You cannot solve problems in the world if you are not able to empathize and act as a global citizen. Students with ambitious dreams, such as solving the education crises in their home countries or advancing artificial intelligence, will be able to learn skills needed to do so in their classes. Minerva cultivates that drive one step further, by establishing opportunities and partnerships to help students develop and practice what they’ve learned in a real world context.

Audry is continuing to help students discover what they need in order to be happy, competent, and functional within any community. “There was no career decision that I made to begin this work…I have fundamentally known that my passion has always been to cultivate positive, impactful change in the world around me. So for me, there’s no other choice,” she relates. From innovating projects with local organizations to initiating conversations that make students question their worldviews to simply being an excellent person to talk about life with, every aspect of Audry’s work is helping students find their own deep joy in life.