Ainsley Schwerr graduated from Normandale Community College in May — then went right back. When COVID-19 hit, the 18-year-old from Eagan put her continuing education at Hamline University on hold to take a gap year. Schwerr now works as coordinator of Normandale’s Student Resource Center, connecting students to food and hygiene items, housing referrals and more through a host of community partners. The center, currently operating online, encourages students to schedule a meeting or e-mail questions to make sure they get what they need as quickly as possible. Schwerr shares the urgency of her work, growing up as a home-schooled kid and why she always looks forward to Halloween.
Q: Congratulations! You just graduated with an associate degree from Normandale, along with your high school diploma through Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO). Tell us about your decision to take a gap year.
A: In May, I was planning to go to Hamline to major in global studies. I made it into their early honor’s program and I was really excited. Then COVID hit. I could have still attended virtually but the experience for me was all about getting out and meeting people. It was a tough decision but once I decided to take a gap year, it felt logical. I can go back to Normandale and help the community that helped me grow into the person I am today.
Q: Were you surprised by the needs of your fellow students?
A: When I was vice president of Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society, we focused on ways to support students with food and housing insecurities after a survey showed that about one-third of Normandale students are “food insecure.” That means they have a limited or uncertain availability of sufficient food; 18% are homeless. It was really, really scary. I started working closely with the Campus Cupboard, a food shelf, which is one of the limited facilities that is open now to students. People working at the Cupboard would tell me stories about students who would come in and take two items for themselves and one for their little brother who really liked that kind of cereal. They were still not getting enough because they were giving it to family members.
Q: Your passion grew when author Sara Goldrick-Rab spoke to students on your campus in 2019. What did she say that resonated with you?
A: Her talk really brought home the acknowledgment and awareness that we have college students suffering all over the country — and here. They aren’t able to perform to the best of their ability because they’re hungry. I had everything stacked in my favor.
Q: What resources can students access?
A: They can come to the Cupboard once a day and get up to two grocery bags of nonperishable food and hygiene items. The VEAP Mobile Food Pantry with fresh food comes to our campus twice a month. We’re also offering the option to get food and hygiene items delivered if they cannot make it to campus and are living within 15 miles of Normandale.
Q: For those who do venture out, how are you keeping them and your volunteers safe?
A: Normandale requires people to fill out a COVID pre-screening form and wear a mask. Students will be asked to use hand sanitizer and then will select their food and other items themselves. Our space is set up to maintain social distancing.
Q: You’re envisioning offering even more to students.
A: One new initiative involves addressing health care needs. When students do come back to campus, will they need a clinic? Maybe a community partner coming in once a month to do COVID testing? We’re discussing what students will need going forward.
Q: From where do you get your altruistic spirit?
A: My mom was a big influence. She was always volunteering at church and at the food shelf. For seven years, my younger brother and I did a Halloween food drive to 75 houses in our neighborhood. We’d wear costumes, and while everyone else was trick-or-treating, we’d collect food donations. We started out with about 300 pounds and grew to about 600 pounds. Neighbors have told me they’re glad Hamline is off for a year so I can come back and do it again.
Q: You were home-schooled for most of your education. Want to bust a myth or two about that?
A: My mom started home schooling me in second grade due to a medical condition and then we just kept going. I joined home-school co-ops and attended middle school part time where I studied Spanish and played in the band. Students were surprised to meet me. They would said, “You are way more extroverted than the rest of us.”
Q: Did home schooling, in a weird way, prepare you for COVID?
A: A lot of my friends are really struggling with how to fill the time. We already were playing a ridiculous amount of board games and card games. I have a leg up on everyone.
Q: Once we’re past this crisis, what’s your goal?
A: I want a career in corporate environmental sustainability. The biggest producers of harm to the earth are international corporations and I don’t feel that governments are doing enough because of bureaucracies. I want to work from the inside out to help these companies become more green.