#weareavodah: Shira Olson

Published Nov 20, 2014

We’ve been conducting brief interviews with some of our current corps members and Fellows to give you the opportunity to get to know them and their work. Our first installment features Shira Olson, one of our New York Corps members.

Tell us about the work that you’re doing at your placement:
I’m a College Access Fellow at the Adams Street Foundation (ASF) servicing the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice (SLJ). SLJ is a small, public, unscreened high school in downtown Brooklyn. ASF is a non-profit partner in residency to the school, providing the funds and staff for enrichment opportunities and intensive college advising.

I work primarily with the seniors. There are 100 seniors in the grade and four college advisers. I’m part of a small, hands-on team and we give each student individualized attention during this busy application season. We meet with seniors twice a week and facilitate “College and Career Advisory”, a built in time during the school day to work on and prepare applications. Right now 100% of the seniors have applied to CUNY (The City University of New York) and a several more have begun their SUNY applications. We also spend 2-3 hours on Wednesday afternoons leading “Wednesday Intensive”, a time for students who are applying to private and out-of-state colleges to work on their applications.

Shira at work in her placement.
Shira at work in her placement.

Our College and Career lab is open for students during lunch and after school. The lab is equipped with several laptops, providing students with resources to research schools, build their college lists, edit their personal statements, and submit their applications. We support students and their families every step of the way.

Many of our students come from low-income households, so an important part of my team’s work is to collect financial information from the students and their families to see which students are eligible for New York State Opportunity Programs. These programs provide academic support and even some financial support for eligible students throughout their four years in college. Much of this information is sensitive and personal, so building relationships with students and their family members is a vital aspect of my job.

Having just graduated from college with little to no experience doing college advising, I am thankful to have this meaningful first job right away. Without AVODAH, I don’t know if I could get a job like this. The Adams Street Foundation actually employs two other current corps members and four AVODAH NYC alumni. This lends itself to quite the supportive work environment. I’m able to talk through my AVODAH successes and challenges with people who have been there before and can offer me sound advice. They provide a necessary sense of distance from my current experience, while keeping my participation in AVODAH objective.

I have turned to these co-workers for support on my resume and to connect me with friends they know in schools and fields I myself am interested in. At one point, networking was intimidating and scary for me, but I am now in a position where I am able to make connections every day. They also know how busy my schedule can be with needing to attend AVODAH programs regularly. They understand when I feel tired or “AVODAHed-out”and help bring me back to the reasons I am here. They get my tight budget and are conscious and respectful of my time –  because they’ve been there. They make me feel valued, important, and part of the community, both at my work placement and within AVODAH.

From left to right, the AVODAH contingent at SLJ: Diana Moldovan (’07-08), Director, College and Career Office; Elissa Martel (’11-’12), Student Enrichment Manager; Daniella Gafen (’12-’13), Student Engagement Coordinator; Laura Hecht (’13-’14), College Advisor); Shira Olson (current), College Access Fellow; Sara Klugman (current), Student Enrichment Fellow; Katy Swartz (current), Teaching Assistant and Tutor.

What led you to apply to AVODAH?
I first learned about AVODAH at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I attended Ramah for nine summers, both as a camper and a staff member, and I kept hearing about AVODAH because a few of my former counselors participated in the program. I looked up to my counselors a great deal. Even though I didn’t know much about the details of the program at the time, their experiences caused AVODAH to appear on my radar. Growing up at Ramah, I got used to living with and among other Jews. AVODAH presented a unique opportunity for me to live in an intentional, Jewish community all year-long, not just in the summer.

The first time I really learned about social justice work was when I went on a study abroad trip to Cape Town, South Africa. Learning in another country gave me the opportunity to step back and realize the injustices I was leaving behind. I learned from peers on my trip, many whom were and continue to be involved community members, of some of the activism they were a part of in the Twin Cities. I came to realize that I lived in a pretty unjust place. Through the professor who led this trip I learned about “lived experience” and “shared experience”, concepts essential to making space for voices and narratives to be heard together. Learning and reading about social justice wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to  get involved on a deeper level, in more ways than my time allowed me to do while in college.

By my Junior year, I knew AVODAH was for me. It allows me to do everything I wanted after college: reinvigorating my Jewish identity, immersing myself in community, working towards social justice. And I get to do it all while living in New York City.

What have you learned so far?
I’ve learned that this work really, really matters. I’m realizing that there may never be enough people in the world to do all the work that needs to be done. But those that are around, the people I share a house with, learn with, laugh with, express frustrations with, and build community with, genuinely care about the same things I do. I am learning that the social justice conversation is a lengthy one, full of complex histories and personal stories. I am learning there are people my age who are just as eager as I am to work towards making communities inclusive, supportive, and equal. I am learning to live on a modest budget. I am learning more recipes for rice and beans than I ever thought possible. I am learning it’s not so scary to make friends and build new relationships after college. I am learning what my obligations as a Jew are to do this work.

How do you define social justice?
I see social justice as not only creating, but maintaining a world of equal opportunities, rights, and privileges for all. Social justice requires allyship, trust, and oftentimes some risk-taking. Sharing stories and personal narratives are essential for active change and understanding.

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