The first student that Hallie Westlund ’16 worked with as a volunteer for Lafayette Kids didn’t want her to be his tutor. Instead of being discouraged, Westlund persisted and looked for ways to build a relationship with him. Four years later, Westlund is one of the leaders of the William & Mary-based tutoring and mentoring program and has established relationships with dozens of kids and their families in the Lafayette Village neighborhood of Williamsburg.
“Throughout the years, it’s been really nice to watch the kids grow up and stay connected to them,” she said. “It’s been really rewarding.”
For her work with Lafayette Kids and multiple other service organizations in addressing poverty, educational and health disparities and human rights abuses, Westlund is the recipient of William & Mary’s 2016 James Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership.
The prize is presented annually to a student “who has demonstrated sustained leadership of an unusual quality, leadership combined with initiative, character and an unfailing commitment to leveraging the assets of the William & Mary community to address the needs of our society.” Westlund will receive the award at the 2016 Charter Day ceremony in William & Mary Hall on Feb. 5.
"Hallie has exemplified the dogged pursuit of learning about a specific topic in her classes, building relationships with people who are facing issues related to that topic and partnering with them to achieve their goals, and applying those lessons back to her academic growth,” said Melody Porter, director of the Office of Community Engagement. “The opportunity gap in education is not just an issue for Hallie, because of the people she has come to know and work with here in Williamsburg and around the world. Those relationships have made this work a personal passion and commitment that will have lasting effects."
Westlund has been engaged in service throughout her life and began her service work at William & Mary before she even went through orientation, participating in the Office of Community Engagement’s 7 Generations program.
As a freshman and Sharpe Scholar, she took a class on opportunity gaps in American education, taught by Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Leadership Drew Stelljes. One of the teaching assistants for that class had recently started the Lafayette Kids program and was looking for volunteers to mentor and tutor children. Westlund signed up and has remained involved since, working with elementary, middle-school and, now, high school students every week and learning about educational issues in the process.
“The Sharpe Scholars program, Dr. Stelljes’ course and my years at Lafayette Kids have furthered my understanding of multiple challenges facing those with fewer opportunities; I began to see education as crucial for economic advancement and amelioration of poverty,” Westlund said in an essay for the Monroe Prize.
Working with Lafayette Kids also gave Westlund a chance to get to know the Williamsburg community better, including some of the university’s staff members who live in the Lafayette neighborhood. Additionally, volunteering with the program allowed Westlund a chance to get off of campus and take a break from her life as a student.
“Sometimes, I would be stressed about my schoolwork but as soon as I’d get to Lafayette Village, I would realize it was a nice way to escape and really focus my attention on something else and someone else,” she said.
In addition to her work with Lafayette Kids, Westlund has also served with Williamsburg Head Start, Matty’s Garden at Matthew Whaley Elementary, the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, Building Tomorrow, the Virtual Conversation Partner Program and Students for Belize Education. She has also worked as a program leader for the Office of Community Engagement, heading events including the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, SHOW Day, Spring into Action Day and the 7 Generations program, where she got her own start in service at William & Mary.
A double major in government and human rights and social justice, Westlund’s service work has directly informed her academic work and vice versa. She has had internships with the UNC Poverty Center, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights and STAR, the Study of the Tsunami Aftermath and Recovery Project. She also completed an independent study on educational access for girls in Morocco, comparing urban locations to rural areas. For her senior thesis, Westlund is expanding that study and looking at educational policies in other Middle Eastern countries.
“There has been a continual and mutual interaction of my educational experiences with my community experiences such that each drives and enhances the other,” Westlund said in her essay. “Both have helped me to better serve my community and to leverage my own assets to the fullest extent. I have grown from a student and volunteer to an active citizen and, importantly, these educational community experiences have guided and accelerated my leadership roles in mentoring other students so that they, too, can become engaged learners, empathetic partners and active citizens.”
With graduation on the horizon, Westlund is thinking about pursuing graduate school and hopes to one day work in a think tank.
“I really enjoy research, and at this point – because I am interested in global education, especially for girls – I think the biggest impact that I can make is through research to try to expand access to education,” she said.
As she prepares to say goodbye to William & Mary in May, Westlund is also preparing to say goodbye to all of the friends she has made in the Williamsburg community through her service work. But, for some of her Lafayette kids, graduation won’t necessarily mean goodbye.“There are a couple of kids who I am really invested in and have talked to a lot and know what their hopes and dreams are, so I hope that I can follow them as they pursue those things,” she said.