Shyleen Wesley ’99 finds soul-filling work with the Harlem Children’s Zone

This article, written by editor-in-chief Lauren Jefferson, served as the introduction to feature content in the most recent Crossroads (spring/summer 2018).  This summer, we’ve been running some of that magazine content on our news blog. Though the feature that included Shyleen Wesley ’99 is a bit unorthodox as a stand-alone feature, we still wanted to share her story – and some more of Jon Styer’s photos – for those who may not have read it yet. 

And it’s a perfect kick-off to the new start of the school year!

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SOME YEARS AGO, when I first began freelancing for Crossroads under former editor Bonnie Price Lofton MA ’04, my first assignment was to contact and interview, via email, about 25 EMU alumni working in education – some teachers, but others in information technology, facilities and support services. As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I was used to uncordial greetings and surly responses, but every one of these alumni showed gracious interest, and often provided thought-provoking answers to my seemingly mundane questions.

As Bonnie’s successor, I am now nearly four years into my very own unique EMU education, and yes, while it is my particular business to draw straight, bold lines between that particular education and the finding and maximizing of one’s human potential, I have found that this connection never needs to be fabricated.

In our Crossroads travels around the country, photographer and designer Jon Styer ’07 and I often meet EMU alumni who have found deeply satisfying soul-feeding work. Or, if they haven’t yet found their calling, they seem to be well-equipped with experiences and self-knowledge to be on the path towards finding it.

Shyleen Wesley on a blustery March day outside the Harlem Children’s Zone headquarters.

Our recent trip to New York City proved this point. We spent three days meeting just seven of the 140 alumni who work and live in and around the city …

… THE “KICK-OFF INTERVIEW” on a Crossroads trip always seems to give us energy for the ones to come, and Shyleen Wesley ’99, waiting for us at Promise Academy 2 Middle School in Harlem, did not disappoint.

In conversation a few weeks prior, after being connected by her former college roomie Trina Trotter Nussbaum ’00, MA ’18, Shyleen had learned that our visit would be my first foray into New York City, and one of her first questions when we arrived at her office door was a warm, “How you doing?”

One reason I’d wanted to meet Shyleen was to hear about her work with Harlem Children’s Zone, a groundbreaking comprehensive model of integrated support services enveloping residents within nearly 100 blocks. With education as the foundation, the organization’s goal is to end intergenerational poverty.

Shyleen, a Harlem native, came to the job about five years ago from a managerial position with an elevator company. “My best friend worked here and there was an opening and she said, ‘Why don’t you apply? You’d be perfect.’”

The school had cleared out for spring break by the time Jon and I arrived, so the hallways were empty as his camera shutter clicked away and Shyleen and I talked.

“If the kids were here, it would be hard to walk through,” Shyleen said. I wouldn’t have minded that, just to see them interact with her. She clearly loves her job.

“I really enjoy being a lot of different things throughout the day,” she said. “I get to be a guidance counselor, I get to be a teacher, an administrator. I see the kids at their best and their worst. I get to give them comfort. This is the perfect job for me. It’s the only one I’ve ever had that feeds every part of who I am.”

Here’s Shyleen in the empty hallways, being patient as a pro with my questions and Jon’s clicking camera.

Jon paused, and we looked at each other.

“Wow,” he said.

“Wow,” I said back. I looked at Shyleen. “We could just stop right there. We don’t need to do any more talking. I’ll just put that in the article and be done with it.”

“Huge font,” said Jon, who also does Crossroads page layout.

Now, I am well aware that there are many possible reasons – besides the EMU education – for why so many EMU alumni find fulfillment in their work. The institution itself may attract intelligent, well-rounded, self-reflective people to begin with, for example.

It’s not just that, though. Shyleen said her major in liberal arts and minor in psychology did prepare her for her work, but her biggest takeaway from EMU was something else: “I think EMU taught me to be comfortable with people of all different backgrounds and be present in the moment because you never know exactly what you’re going to get from it. It may seem like it’s not relevant, but it may be sometime in the future.”

Shyleen’s EMU connection happened through friends who attended Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church, where she was baptized. When her youth group leader Melody Pannell ’97 (now professor of social work at EMU) headed south for college, Shyleen went to visit. Though she had planned on taking a year off after high school, she liked the campus and decided to apply.

And more questions… Shyleen takes the time to walk us towards Central Park.

“Of course, if you’re a Mennonite, you’ll wind up at EMU one way or another. Whether you go to school or you go visit or you go for something else, that’s where you go,” she said. “It took a little bit of getting used to, not being in town and not having things available, but when you’re from Harlem, you can go anywhere and meet anyone and you’ll be fine.”

Ready to begin her own spring break, Shyleen packed up and we walked with her towards her apartment. Jon took a few more photos in front of Marcus Garvey Park, while I continued peppering her with questions about city life: What do you do in your free time? Where do you go to the grocery store? How do you carry your groceries home? How did you find a place to live? At her corner, amidst the thanks for the visit, she said, “OK, I’m a hugger,” and gave us both hugs before heading off.

“An interview with someone you just met that ends in a hug,” I said to Jon as we headed toward Central Park, “is always a good start.”

Weeks later, back in Harrisonburg, staff writer Christopher Clymer Kurtz ’00 turned to me after finishing the last of four interviews with EMU alumni.

“Where do you find these people?” he asked me.

“Alumni database,” I said.

“They’re amazing,” he said.

“You all sure are,” I said.

Join the Discussion on “Shyleen Wesley ’99 finds soul-filling work with the Harlem Children’s Zone

  1. Shyleen and I go back to when she was a student at EMU. She spent time in our home braiding my youngest child’s hair into cornrows and we would have lovely conversations. She is a inspiration to me.

  2. I met Shyleen at EMU. We were both psychology majors and I’ve never met a more loving, gracious and classy woman! She continues to be one of my best friends!

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