Coming Home

2017 High Roader Hannah Sosenko and Fellows on the steps of City Hall
December 14, 2017
Hannah Sosenko

Growing up just 25 minutes away from Buffalo, I’d always considered myself to be a true Buffalonian, with a deep love for Tim Hortons and chicken wings. It took me one day in the High Road precourse to realize how little I knew about the city I’ve lived near my whole entire life. I had no idea that it was one of the most segregated city in the country, or about the large refugee population in Buffalo and Lackawanna.

I felt like a fraud, like I was lying to people for years when I told them I was “from Buffalo.” I figured this summer was likely going to be an eye-opening experience, one where I would learn a lot about Buffalo and its youth through my work at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County. Now that I’ve finished the program, I can honestly say I have learned so much about the city, plus a lot about myself and people in general, such as:

  • I actually know where I am in the city, and can get around and parallel park (almost) like a pro. Before this fellowship, I never really spent time downtown unless it was for a Canalside concert or a Sabres game. Spending so much time outside of these areas has changed my perspective on Buffalo. I got to see the improvements and economic revitalization that’s occurring firsthand, and learned so much more about the history which allowed me to gain a better understanding of Buffalo.
  • There are so many people in this city who are driven and committed to creating an equitable and equal Buffalo by taking direct initiative to create a real impact on the community. In addition to hearing from so many driven people, I learned about many organizations who are making a positive impact on Buffalo in a variety of areas. From working with youth like the Cornell Cooperative Extension or the Massachusetts Avenue Project does, to working to prevent gentrification in the Fruit Belt like Open Buffalo is, to building better neighborhoods like the West Side Promise Neighborhood, all of the organizations have the same mission: to make a better Buffalo. I would probably never have known about these organizations and their initiatives had I not participated in this program.
  • Living in an outer suburb, I did not know a lot about the Buffalo Public School system coming into this summer. I spent a lot of time this summer researching statistics about BPS, finding low graduation rates and a high likelihood of students engaging in risky behaviors. There is a lot of room for improvement, but if after school programs, like those offered by Say Yes and CCE, and other academic initiatives continue, progress can be achieved.
  • People in Buffalo care so much about their community and making it a better place to live. I saw this most through my work with students from Olmsted and Tapestry High School. The students I met with are part of a 4-H group called Youth CAN, a leadership and civic engagement group who leads community based projects during the school year and the summer. I got to be part of their planning process for their summer projects. Each group had different communities they wanted to focus on, for Olmsted, it was the refugee community, and for Tapestry, the community on the East Side. For 16 and 17 year olds, they are extremely dedicated to giving back to Buffalo and trying to make it a better place. They voiced concerns about the police and the neighborhoods in which they live, and offered realistic solutions to these problems that they will implement in the summer. They were extremely passionate about their projects staying within their communities to make sure they are effective.
  • I never realized how much work goes into planning programming for students. I spent a whole week planning out activities for the Youth CAN students, which still changed and continues to change as the program moves forward. I have a newfound respect for teachers, who have to plan lessons daily that are engaging for students.
  • After school programs and opportunities are so important to students and their futures!! Before this summer, I never really realized how fortunate I was to have always had a ride to and from sports practices, and to have the opportunities to explore my interests through a variety of clubs throughout middle and high school. Students in low-income areas don’t always have those opportunities, and are missing out on the benefits of these activities. There need to be more equitable and equal opportunities for students to get involved in these programs.
  • This summer also made me realize that I really want to enter a career path that in some way benefits the community I live in. Working with CCE was an extremely rewarding experience, knowing I was helping the high school students I was working with. Entering a career path that is socially minded is definitely a new goal for me to consider in my future.
  • Prior to this summer, I was somewhat unsure of how my coursework in ILR would apply to working with high school students in a 4-H civic engagement program. I found my OB courses, as well as psychology classes that I’ve taken, to be applicable to my work. I was very attentive to the organizational culture of CCE and the types of leadership within it, which made me think critically about the kind of organization I would like to work for in my future.
  • Lastly, I’ve learned taking the “high road” can be tough, but it’s extremely rewarding (I know, super cheesy but super true). And this applies to both non-profit work and interactions with people too. I’ve really learned the importance of kindness and being cognizant of the things I say and how they may impact someone of a different background who has had different experiences than me. It also is not easy to devote your career to a project that you may never see through to the end, or that may not achieve the full progress desired. While Buffalo is not going to change dramatically overnight, so much progress has been made by the various organizations we all worked with and got to hear from on Fridays. This progress, even if it may seem insignificant to some, is necessary for creating a better Buffalo.

This summer truly was a learning and growing experience for me personally. I have a new view of Buffalo, and look forward to seeing my hometown grow even more in the years to come.