The Power of Conversation

PYC and Luther College Students Talk About Life, School, Dreams

by Janet Zahn, PCYC/Capri Theater Communications Manager

In the spring of the year, for 25 years, a group of sociology students from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, have met with a group of PYC high school students to talk about their lives, their schools and their dreams. 

“These conversations provide the college and high school students with real,” said Melissa Knofczynski, Manager of Social Work Services at PYC Arts & Technology High School. “The students from PYC and Luther ask questions freely. By the end of the session they’ve developed a real camaraderie.” 

Dr. Ken Root, former sociology professor at Luther, and Karen Johnson, a Luther alumnus and social worker, created the program, which includes 2 days of concentrated engagement with a variety of people and organizations in the Twin Cities. Dr. Root and Ms. Johnson were part of a tightly knit group of people who worked together at PCYC and the Wilderness Canoe Base for many years. Johnson continues to coordinate and participate in the program, along with Dr. Char Kunkel, Professor of Sociology at Luther, and Ms. Knofczynski at PYC. 

One goal of the Luther course is to give students an opportunity to advance their learning beyond lectures, books and papers. “We invite our students to make a human connection to what they study in the classroom and take that experience with them for the rest of their lives,” said Johnson. 

“One of my goals is to increase students’ empathy,” said Dr. Kunkel. “We do not construct this experience as a tour, or observation of the “other,” but rather as an authentic exchange between people, where real learning takes place.” 

Indeed, minds are always opened and often changed by these conversations. 

“I think the kids were cool,” said China Osby, a graduating senior at PYC. “Everyone was being truthful. They talked with me about the college experience and they changed my mind in a way. They made me want to start college sooner than I had planned and I’m definitely going to do that.” 

Timariae Callender, another PYC student, added, “It was real. It was eye-opening, and it did have a big impact on me. I think meeting those students changed my mind about college. …I’m thinking about being a social worker now, and I also want to learn about public speaking.” 

What did the college students learn? “Our kids provide the Luther students with a wealth of knowledge,” said Knofczynski. 

“For one, we were speaking about PYC,” said Callender. “We told them that this is a very good school; that it’s more than ‘an alternative school.’ Everyone here helps us get to where we want to be.” 

Other PYC student comments were captured by Knofczynski: “The staff here really cares about us; there is no favoritism.” “We have so many resources here that I know that if I ask, there may be something that can help me or my family.” 

“I didn’t care about my future until I came here.” “Our staff is kind of like our parents. They care and I think they love us.” 

After the session, one Luther student told Melissa that it had never crossed his mind to work at an alternative school, “but we changed his mind about that.” 

In the end, and in a very short period of time, the students make important connections, personally and intellectually. 

“My hope is that all the students will recognize their gifts, that they see they have lots to give to our world, and that they’ll all find a way to give back to others,” said Johnson. 

“I hope that these conversations empower our kids to say ‘this is who we are, this is our story,’ and to know that these college kids really want and need to hear from them,” said Knofczynski. 

“I hope that the PYC students see that college is possible for them,” said Kunkel. “And I hope that the Luther students’ assumptions are challenged; that they increase social empathy and learn to be more honest, efficient and effective in their activism.” 

“I’ve participated in these student conversations at PYC for many years and they never fail to move me,” added Johnson. “This is such a valuable human experience. We all get our eyes and hearts opened.” 

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