Fellow Spotlight: Nick Russell, Class VII

Nick Russell’s resume is impressive: he has worked for a governor, a United States Senator, a British Member of Parliament, and now, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer – all by the age of 21. However, one of the most impressive things he has accomplished does not involve work with high-level government leaders. Instead, it is a personal project to which he has dedicated numerous hours in a small rural community in Central America.

This bilingual, classically trained pianist is also an avid soccer fan, campus leader and has nearly a perfect grade point average. But what may surprise you about Nick is that he is the youngest Gubernatorial Fellow in Class VII and one of only three undergraduate students selected statewide for this prestigious program. Nick credits his parents for setting the example of placing importance on public service. “My father served in the Navy for 20 years and my mother, now a university professor, has been an educator at all levels. I feel that their example showed me how a career in public service offers a rewarding experience that financial compensation alone cannot provide.”

Following his passion for public service, Nick joined his church mission trip in 2009 to volunteer with a team of medical professionals for a week in Calobre, a rural town in Panama. Without formal medical training, Nick was able to assist by translating for the patients and spending time with the families as they waited to be seen. As a dual Economics and International Affairs major at Florida State University, Nick had studied some of the unique challenges experienced by rural developing areas and this experience gave him the opportunity to see them firsthand.

“On a superficial level, the lack of basic resources such as education, healthcare, and clean water in many areas negatively affected peoples’ daily lives. However, these were really symptoms of deeper problems; social and economic structures were inherently biased against the rural poor. For example, without safe roads, secure property rights, and the availability of capital resources to name a few, wealth-generating activities such as starting a new business are nearly impossible for many in Calobre.”

Nick was so inspired by the families he met that week that he decided to continue his commitment to the community after the trip was over. Throughout the next year, he worked with leaders from his church and from Calobre to identify ways he could help ameliorate the long-term economic issues the community faced. “One of the biggest challenges I recognized was that insufficient English education in the local school was preventing students from gaining access to higher-paying jobs.” Although the local school taught English to the students, it had only one English instructor and used advanced curriculum that was not appropriate for elementary school-aged children.

Nick proposed an English language learning initiative which would supply new reading materials to the school and assist in the development of the English curriculum. To fund the implementation of his plan, Nick secured a grant from FSU’s Center for Leadership and Civic Education. He then spent two months in Calobre, personally implementing the new program with school officials. “By the time I arrived, I already had a clear idea of what my role would be and what age groups I would be working with. Because I started out as an assistant to their only English teacher, I began implementing the project by observing how the classes were managed in the first weeks, and then later figuring out how I could suggest improvements through my teaching.”

While in Calobre, Nick developed interactive games and activities to motivate the students and started a library by securing more than 500 children’s books for the school. Nick contracted with a group of educators from the capital city to host a workshop for the teachers in Calobre and to work with the children on activities and content from one of their new books. In his spare time, Nick worked with after-school reading groups to engage parents and family members and to reinforce literacy skills outside of the classroom.

Nick’s dedication to improving the English curriculum had tangible results: better retention rates and higher test achievement scores. He hopes that this will improve future economic opportunities for the students. “Demand for English speakers in Panama’s cities is strong. Especially because of the canal and the tourism industry, workers that speak English are needed in virtually every occupation. Many of the students will likely move to one of these cities where I believe they will find stronger employment prospects with better English skills.”

Nick continued his commitment to the community by creating a nonprofit corporation to allow for the expansion of the library project. In the future, he hopes to acquire funding for a kitchen that will provide nutritious meals to the students in order to address various health concerns while continuing to improve educational attainment. Reflecting on his experience in Calobre, Nick notes that, “When we see a problem, we may have a first reaction about how to deal with it, but oftentimes the situation is much more nuanced. The education issues that I observed in Calobre turned out to be much more complex, involving underlying social, health, and other policy matters that needed to be resolved as well.”

As a Fellow, Nick works with the Chief Financial Officer in the Department of Financial Services. He continues to use his background and experience in economics to help the state of Florida better utilize resources. In the future, Nick hopes to study economics in graduate school and to pursue a career which enables him to continue his passion for public service. Regardless of his career path, Nick knows he will always continue his work in Calobre. “After working on the project for just two months, there is still much work to be done before English education in the rural area will be strong enough to have a widespread impact. Hopefully, I can continue to be a part of that effort in the future.”

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