A willingness to volunteer becomes
commitment to afterschool program © Nov. 9, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

Torrie Bernier, a Norwich sophomore who runs the afterschool program at Northfield Elementary School, helps a child with his homework one October afternoon.

photo by Jordan Silverman, staffTorrie Bernier, a Norwich sophomore who runs the afterschool program at Northfield Elementary School, helps a child with his homework one October afternoon.

Leadership and service are an integral aspect of life at Norwich University, and finding an outlet for volunteering is not unusual. Sometimes students take it a bit further.

Sophomore Torrie Bernier was not only instrumental in keeping an afterschool program at the local elementary school alive, but ended up in charge of a vital community service run by the Boys & Girls Club organization. She got the job when the statewide club was unable to find a qualified leader to run the program in Northfield, Vt., home to Norwich, during the 2012/13 academic year. Bernier stepped up, created an original curriculum, applied and won the job.

“I’ve always wanted to teach,” said Bernier, who hails from Connecticut and is one of about 750 civilian students at Norwich, a largely military college with a student body of more than 2,200 undergrads.

I like being able to know that I can make a difference in their lives.

Torrie Bernier,
Norwich sophomore

After classes, while most students head for the athletic fields, library or student center, Bernier climbs into a maroon Norwich van and heads off campus to the elementary school. Inside, she walks through the bright orange hallways filled with student artwork and posters, and turns into a multi-purpose classroom to await as many as 15 students that she’ll supervise and teach every weekday for more than three hours. It is a program that mixes homework with outdoor activities.

With the kids’ high energy and diverse K-5th ages and personalities, it is demanding work. Bernier skillfully keeps the youngsters on task, playing the roles of encouraging mentor and drillmaster with a touch of herder of cats. She knows teachers’ lingo and used a commanding voice to cut through the clamor as they filter in.

“Hey, go sign up for snacks,” she said, pointing them to the choices on the chalkboard. When the volume in the room grew too loud, she sternly called for “indoor voices.” To get their attention, she called out: “One, two, three, eyes on me.” The kids turned and returned the chant, “one, two, three, eyes on you.”

Bernier enjoys the work and corrals other Norwich students to help. On this day, she was joined by Lillian Lamplough, a freshman from Massachusetts who knows Bernier from the cheerleading squad.

Bernier, 20, doesn’t find the sudden ramp-up in responsibility all that remarkable, and said it is just what can happen when you take initiative and visit the school’s Center for Civic Engagement to see what opportunities are out there.

“When I was in high school I took all the teaching classes,” said Bernier, adding she also interned at a local elementary school to get a first-hand idea of what teaching was like.

Taking charge, however, was a learning experience.

“It was kind of rocky at first,” Bernier admitted. “The kids didn’t know me and trust me. But since then I've gotten to know them and they’ve gotten to know me and I’ve gained their respect.”

While not every student ends up running a program, fully 84 percent of Norwich students end up volunteering their time, doing service work or work-study, said Nicole DiDomenico, who heads Norwich’s busy Center for Civic Engagement [CCE].

Established in 2002, the CCE works with myriad community organizations to uncover their needs and match them with student interests, she said. Bernier, like all students, went through a screening process, interview and orientation before landing the job.

The afterschool program has allowed her to practice and refine classroom skills and work in her chosen field each day until parents pick kids up at 6 p.m. The five-day-per-week commitment makes for a busy life.

“I’m on the go from 8:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., non-stop,” she said.

This includes cheerleading practice after her stint with the kids. An avid soccer player who planned to sign up for ROTC until she “blew out” her knees, Bernier is unfazed by the daily pace, calling herself a well-organized “go-getter.”

With a major in criminal justice and a minor in secondary education, the afterschool program nicely fits her career goal, which is to educate youths in juvenile detention. There is also satisfaction that goes beyond classroom work, academic grades or career choices.

“I like being able to know that I can make a difference in their lives,” she said.