A Place to Serve
The University’s YMCA programs offer multiple ways for individuals—especially those from underrepresented groups—to embrace leadership,work for social justice, and make an impact on the world.
When McKayla Beaulieu (B.A. ’18, M.A. ’20) originally found her way to the University YMCA on the Twin Cities campus, she was looking for a place to serve. The Bemidji native knew she loved children, and she’d heard that the UY offered opportunities to engage with K-12 students.
Through a UY initiative called Healthy Kids Matter (HKM), which is a mentorship program that matches college students with elementary schoolers, Beaulieu found what she’d been seeking. Working with young children while growing into a leader—Beaulieu worked her way up to program manager of HKM—was as fulfilling as she’d hoped. But that’s not all she gained. She also discovered a community of caring, values-driven friends.
And through her HKM work at at Bdote Learning Center, a K-8 Ojibwe and Dakota school in Minneapolis, Beaulieu came to learn about and embrace her own Indigenous identity.
Beaulieu’s grandfather, who attended trade school and started a business in Bemidji, was from the White Earth Reservation. “[H]e never really embraced the culture,” Beaulieu says. “Bemidji is in the middle of three different Native reservations, but I had never explored that part of myself. In school, there was a bit of a divide between being Native American or being white. It was like, OK, which side am I going to pick?”
She credits her time at Bdote, and the “accepting, supportive, safe”—and diverse—community she found at the UY with helping her grow into herself. When Beaulieu graduated from the U of M, she decided to participate in the Native American Honoring Ceremony at commencement.
UY students come from virtually every walk of life, but “the common factor is, we all have a passion for community work,” says Eric Dormoh Jr. (B.S. ’18), who also worked in the HKM program and is now a UY board member. “The UY gives you that opportunity to engage in the community—to use your own gifts to help [others]. It’s a welcoming and family-like space ... and it’s also a change agent.”
Cultivating leaders for over a century
Initially formed in 1887 for the purpose of “meeting the spiritual needs” of young men, the University of Minnesota YMCA—unlike community Ys around the country—has never been a fitness facility. Instead, the UY focuses on preparing students for life after school, focusing on developing young leaders and helping students navigate academics and life on campus. Today it’s part of the YMCA of the North, but its programs and services have always been uniquely designed to serve U of M students.
By the 1930s, the UY had adopted an early social and racial justice focus and was active in peace and civil rights issues. According to retired program director and UY historian Jean Burkhardt (B.A. ’76), the old UY building in Dinkytown was once “the only integrated housing option on campus.” (Today the UY is located at 1801 University Avenue Southeast.)
Burkhardt served at the UY in the 1980s before moving on to work with the national staff for the YMCA.
“It was [initially] steeped in a kind of progressive Christianity, and it always had a strong service component,” Burkhardt says of the organization in its early decades. “And it always [prioritized] conversations around the compelling issues of the day. That has really continued over time—those notions of ethics, justice, leadership, service.”
During Burkhardt’s tenure, she led the UY Metro Internship Program. The program examines questions of corporate responsibility and the ethical obligations businesses owe to the wider community. That program also helped shape a generation of business and community leaders. [See the separate article, a “Matter of Life and Death,” also in this issue.]
“We caught [students] at a time in their life when they were really in this developmental phase,” Burkhardt says. “We always knew this; now we have [the understanding of] brain chemistry to prove it. During those really formative years of [students’] lives, they’re ready to think and talk about important things.”
As such, the UY exists to help individuals lean into new experiences and new challenges—while wrapped in the support of community, says Patti Neiman (B.A.S. ’83, M.A. ’88), UY director of educational efficacy and leadership. “
"It’s a community where you can be at all levels of learning, you can be in all different kinds of majors, you can identify however you identify,” Neiman says. “You’re coming with a set of values that we value: You care about people, and you care about each other.”
Executive director Jenny Wright Collins (B.I.S. ’01, M. Ed. ’10) calls the UY mindset “a lens of possibility.”
Student-led ideas and solutions
In recent years, the UY has expanded its commitment to nurturing leadership in underrepresented students, which once meant mainly first-generation college students, but now includes students of color, American Indian and other Indigenous students, individuals from immigrant communities, and LGBTQ students, as well. The Y Collegiate Achievers Program (YCAP), founded in 2010, was designed to provide support and mentoring for students from these communities, offering them a home on a campus that can sometimes feel dauntingly large.
The University’s Department of Educational Psychology completed a longitudinal study in 2018 comparing five years of data on UY students with a group of U of M counterparts who weren’t involved in the program. Accounting for class, race, test scores, and more, the study found that UY students were 15 percent more likely to graduate on time, earned higher GPAs, and an average of seven more credits during their undergraduate careers.
“I really believe the Achievers program changed our University-wide culture and community,” says Neiman, who helped launch the program. “And the students who were with me 11 years ago, who are all now turning 30, they’re still connected to each other, and they’re still part of my life. And they’re doing amazing things on the planet.”
Key to YCAP’s success, Neiman says, is that it’s rooted in listening to students. “It’s understanding unmet needs—and not making assumptions about what [those are] but using really active listening skills to understand.”
Nate Taye (B.S.B. ’21), concurs. Taye, born in Ethiopia and raised in St. Paul, was deeply involved in the UY and, with Neiman’s help, created a Black Mens’ Focus Group to support Black men on campus. “Oftentimes, universities and [other] large-scale organizations have this sense of, we figured it out before; we’re just going to do the same thing until it works again,” he says. “And oftentimes, student voices aren’t the driving force in creating those solutions. The UY, and Patti, listen to student voices and turn them into action.”
Of course, it’s not just students involved with the UY who benefit from its programming.
UY by the numbers
At the University YMCA, up to 250 students participate each year in one of the organization’s programs, which include internships, networking opportunities, and numerous ways to mentor Twin Cities youth. The organization aims to cultivate character and create “cause-driven” leaders.
A 2018 study showed that students involved with UY were 15 percent more likely to graduate on time, earned higher GPAs, and earned an average of seven more credits during their undergraduate careers.
The UY is governed by a community board of 23 members, many of whom are former alumni of both the U of M and UY programs. Currently 68 percent of board members are BIPOC.
Current students involved with the UY also reflect a diverse background and roughly 75 percent identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ, or represent first-generation college attendees.
Neiman, who earned the Page Foundation Community Partner Award in 2019 for her UY work with Page Scholars (Minnesota high school students who have won grants to attend Minnesota colleges), calls herself “spoiled” to earn a living working with UY students. “There’s this values-driven energy. Every year at graduation I’m so sad: ‘Oh my God, these amazing people graduated.’ And then I’m, ‘Oh my God, these new students are so great!’” Taye is one of many UY alumni with whom she maintains a close friendship. Despite their differences in age and experience, the duo consider each other mentors.
Anisa Abdulahi (B.S. ’20), who’s now earning her doctorate in occupational therapy at the University, is a UY program assistant. She’s also long had a passion for mental health.
“Fun fact: occupational therapy is actually derived from mental health,” she says. “The first therapists actually worked in mental health facilities and psychiatric wards. It started off with, ‘How can we support these individuals, help them live their lives?’”
In 2019, Abdulahi had an internship with Allina Health in its Change to Chill program, which is a space for teens and youth to journal, meditate, do yoga, take time for themselves. Abdulahi thought “This is so powerful. This is what I want to do.” Today as the pandemic drags on and current events trigger stress and discord, Abdulahi continues to see unmet mental health needs among her fellow U of M students, and among younger kids, as well.
“I’ve noticed a gap in many immigrant families and BIPOC families: students struggle with anxiety, with depression, and our parents don’t always understand. So, let’s create a community.”
Abdulahi has helped organize a mental health town hall on campus, created mental health days for YCAP students, and was a mentor in a series of UY workshops called #Take5, which offered mental health education and support for middle- and high-school-age youth.
The UY, Abdulahi says, has fueled the confidence that enables her to be a mental health leader at the University and beyond.
Many students and alumni of programs delivered through the UY talk about the relationships they’ve developed with other “cause-driven” individuals through the organization. They also suggest those relationships might not have happened in other contexts. Executive Director Collins says the UY spirit attracts students from all over the map—“urban, suburban, rural”—with a vast range of majors and academic interests. What they share is a desire to serve.
Sonia Paredes [B.S. ’16], echoes that sentiment. “I’ve met so many people from different backgrounds, different majors, people we wouldn’t [otherwise] connect with,” she says.
Paredes, who managed the UY’s Gear Up program supporting college readiness for middle schoolers, remembers developing a rapport with an aerospace engineering student—who was also deeply engaged in community work through the UY.
“I was fascinated by his major, his academics,” she says of that connection. “Our [studies] and future plans were very different, but we found ways to connect,” she says. “A lot of us, as people of color on a big campus of a predominantly white institution, don’t think of ourselves as leaders. This is a community of not only students but also staff who really believe in you and your abilities to lead and make a difference.”
Today, Paredes is a social service caseworker and a new UY board member. Hers is one of countless “full circle” UY stories; many individuals who consider themselves “alumni” of various UY programs return again and again to the organization to serve in various capacities.
This year, Paredes’s younger brother is connecting with the UY as a first-year student. “He basically grew up as part of [the UY]” through her involvement, Paredes says. “It’s [a] generation of connection.”
Susan Maas is the copyeditor for Minnesota Alumni and a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.