How the Backpack Project serves the local community

The Backpack Project and their mission

The Backpack Project is an organization initiated and run by students of the University of Iowa. The group strives to help K-12 students from local school districts who may be less accommodated. The members of the group currently work with a range of schools including West High School, Liberty High School, Northwest Junior High School, Mann Elementary High School and Lincoln Elementary School.

At these schools they may assist with tutoring both students who wish to pursue higher education and those who are at risk for not graduating. Alongside tutoring, they aid students with homework and preparations for the ACTs and SATs. For less strenuous work, the members get to play learning games with children from elementary classes.

The Backpack Project’s mission states, “Our mission is to foster a love of learning and to help students gain the skills needed to be successful in an academic and post-high school career. We aim to bridge the educational gap that presents barriers to educational success.” 

Meet Nitya and Meera

Nitya Virippil is currently in her senior year at the University of Iowa. She is majoring in Physiology and earning a certificate in Public Health. Currently the President of The Backpack Project, she and fellow student Meera Patel co-founded the organization together in the fall of 2018. Meera, the organization’s Vice President, is also a senior at the University of Iowa and is Majoring in Human Physiology and doing a Chemistry Minor on the Pre-Pharmacy track. 

The inspiration

When asked what inspired them to start their organization, both women had something to say. “As someone who was a private tutor in high school, I wanted to continue doing that in college, but I felt compelled to pursue it as a volunteer,” Virippil explains. Patel builds on this and says, “Many tutoring services are not equally accessible to all students and this gap is many times due to finances. Being able to bridge that gap allows all students to have an equal opportunity to success- it’s the mission of the backpack project and that is what I aimed to do when starting it.”

The meaning of service

Service, one of the five pillars to the Iowa Challenge, is defined as a good citizen to your community, making it a great place to live. Patel states, “Service to me is being able to aid and support other individuals without expecting anything in return.” Virippil addressed service saying, “To me, service is using your strengths to benefit others at no cost. This can be manifested in many ways.” Both women go above and beyond these expectations in The Backpack Project by reaching out to both our youngest community members at the elementary level and our members who are just grasping their positions in the city as young adults. The strengths they use to support other individuals include their knowledge, as well as their compassion. 

"Service to me is being able to aid and support other individuals without expecting anything in return."

The impact

With five different school districts in their range of work, the effects of The Backpack Project touch many students in our community. Virippil says, “I have seen students blossom both personally and academically, and I am excited to continue to see them reach their goals. Seeing students gain confidence and seeing a genuine smile when a concept “clicks” makes everything worth it.”

Patel says, “I have seen The Backpack Project impact the academic journey of many students. It has been the support many students needed but didn’t have access to and now that they do they are able to reach their academic potential.” This potential could be something small like a student’s first A in class, or as big as getting into their dream school, both thanks to help from members like Virippil and Patel.

How members benefit

When asked about how they benefited from their time with The Backpack Project, both women had a lot to say. “The Backpack Project has allowed me to bridge my love of learning and service together. Since joining, I have had the opportunity to connect and network with school administrations and community members. Additionally, I have gained invaluable skills from taking on a leadership role and by working with underserved students,” Virippil explains. Patel agreed with these points saying, “The Backpack Project has allowed me to explore my love for learning in a way that helps others enjoy it as well. Being a part of the Backpack Project has given me a unique perspective on how to support the underserved members of our community.”

The future of the Backpack Project

Both Virippil and Patel are graduating in May of 2020, meaning The Backpack Project will be down a President and Vice President. Virippil says, “We have a great group of volunteers and executive members who will hopefully be taking it over at the end of the spring semester.” Virippil continues on to speak about the ways in which she's hopeful for the The Backpack Project’s future. “We hope that our organization grows in volunteers, schools and centers served, and students helped. We are excited to see where the future leaders of the organization take it.”

Want to know more / get involved?

You can follow the organization on Facebook at The Backpack Project - University of Iowa.

2019 Year In Review

This article is part of the 2019 Year in Review, which highlights some of the Division of Student Life's accomplishments from the previous academic year.

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