On a chilly Saturday afternoon in February, the fates collided as SPIA alumna Christina Guillen and current SPIA student Fatime Niane walked into the Pinnacle Room in Baldwin Hall on UGA’s campus. They had not seen each other in almost five years, and this reunion brought their journeys full circle.
“It was a pivotal moment,” Guillen said, with a huge smile on her face. “This was an example of true magic on earth.”
On February 5, 2022, Christina Guillen (AB ’04) was honored as the owner of the sixth fastest growing business during the annual Bulldog 100 celebration. Her business, YouthServ360, is a nonprofit organization that cultivates well rounded youth who are in tune with their community and the world around them. What’s more? She was able to watch the awards ceremony with a current SPIA student who participated in her programs as a child.
Finding her passion through education
After graduating from UGA, Christina was set on attending law school. It was part of her five-year plan. Until she decided to veer off course, if you will. During her last semester at UGA, Christina was accepted into the Semester at Sea. She and a cohort of students traveled the world via ship spending time in various countries, including homestays that allowed her to be immersed in each of the cultures.
“It changed my world,” she said. “No matter where I went, each family wanted the same thing: for their children to do well, and they believed in education as that caveat for change.”
With her feet back on dry land, Guillen deferred her law school acceptance and ran full speed ahead into the education field. Almost 20 years later, she is the principal of her own charter school, 7 Pillars Career Academy.
In her first years as a teacher, Christina saw a huge gap in the after-school care of her middle school students.
“I found my students hanging around my class for hours after the school day,” she reflected. “They loved having a safe space to read, do homework, or just be. I asked them if there were any after-school programs or organizations in the area, and there were none. I knew I wanted to do something.”
Along with the help of her students, Christina applied for various grants to start her own program. She was funded immediately, and the Passport Program in YouthServ360 was born. The program is an after-school opportunity that allows students to earn trips through community service hours. From sixth through eighth grade, students can earn an in-state trip, then an out-of-state trip, and finally a trip abroad, thus “The Passport Program”.
“I always found such value in community service while I was growing up,” Guillen said. “They didn’t care about what I looked like or where I came from – I was important for what I was about to do through service. I found a strong sense of self and grounding, and I wanted the same for my students.”
Learning to love her community
Fatime Niane is a rising Junior at the University of Georgia studying political science and criminal justice. As a SPIA ambassador, Fatime is involved across campus, a spark that started in middle school with “The Passport Program”.
“Before the beginning of sixth grade, I attended an orientation over the summer with Ms. Guillen where she explained the benefits of her after-school program,” said Niane. “It was a place where students could come and learn about new and different things and have a safe place to be after school.”
The biggest draw, however, was the community service component of the program. Each year, the students have a set goal of community service hours to achieve in order to earn their trips. In sixth grade, it is 30 hours, in seventh grade, it is 60 hours and by eighth grade, it’s 90 hours.
“Before this program, I had not really participated in community service. I knew the importance of it, but I had not actively sought out opportunities to serve,” recalled Niane. “This program gave me the opportunity to have an after-school learning environment as well as learn about serving my community.”
For a student to hit their goal, they had to serve both during the after-school time but also on their own. Fatime served at the Atlanta Food Bank as well as her local library.
“It was a great incentive to earn the trips. You had the extrinsic reward of earning your trip, but you were also rewarded through getting to help others in your community.”
On her first trip after sixth grade, Fatime and her classmates went to Savannah, GA. The trips were meant as a reward, but also to inspire. During their trip, they volunteered in the local community and toured the local college or university. In seventh grade, they went to Chattanooga, TN and in eighth grade they went on a cruise to the Bahamas. But no matter where they were in the world, they were always learning and growing.
“This program taught us the importance of being able to travel. It was amazing to experience the world beyond just where we live. And it was my first introduction to a college campus,” she remembered. “It was a great program that I look back on with so much gratitude.”
A full circle moment
The afternoon before the Bulldog 100 Ceremony, SPIA hosted a panel of the 2022 winners to meet and speak to the SPIA Student Ambassadors. Neither Christina nor Fatime knew the other would be there, and their reunion was joyful. That evening Fatime sat with Christina as the countdown began. When they entered the top ten, both were in shock and so grateful to be spending this moment together. Ultimately, 7 Pillar Academy was named the sixth fastest growing organization of the year.
“It was great seeing her awarded for her efforts from the beginning where I participated in the program until now with her Charter school,” said Fatime. “I am so proud of everything she has done.”
“It was a full circle moment,” said Christina. “Sometimes I wonder if I am still having the impact I want to be making, and it’s in these moments that I realize how much of an impact I have had on these students’ lives.”