BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Failure is a powerful icebreaker, so Pace University sophomore Nelli Agbulos opens her presentation to a group of high school seniors by telling them about an unsuccessful protest that she recently planned for her campus. Six people came.
"I told all my friends to come, and nobody showed up," she says.
"Then you've got messed-up friends," one of the seniors retorts.
Sure enough, the anecdote gets the class talking. How do you make sure people know about an event? How do you communicate to them that their presence is important? One student suggests getting the football team to sponsor it. Another says teachers should give extra credit for attendance. Posters. Twitter. P.A. announcements. The class is buzzing.
Agbulos isn't much older than the kids in the government class she teaches twice a week at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn. She isn't paid and doesn't get school credit for her time. She has no teacher training. What she does have is these students' attention. They identify with her and sympathize with her plight in a way that they don't with their teacher, Eric Cortes, who hangs out in the back and keeps order.
The presence of college students in a classroom is the novelty that makes Generation Citizen special. It is a nonprofit that sends college volunteers into high schools and middle schools to facilitate a semester of on-the-ground civic activity. Teenagers love that they get to hang out with college students. Many of the college mentors, called Democracy Coaches, are still teenagers themselves. The high school students get to see what it's like for a person not too different from them to struggle, and even fail, when running a classroom.