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From student to coach: Two program alumni become AmeriCorps members to give back

This year, two of the 30 AmeriCorps members and coaches offered students a unique perspective – they were once students in the College Possible, too.

College Coach Denzell Clements, at University of Nebraska Omaha, and High School Junior Coach Decker Schneider, at Papillion – La Vista High School, also served at schools they attended.

Denzell Clements

Denzell has been a College Access and Success Coach with College Possible for two years, but before that, he began in the program in 2011 as a student.

In the organization’s first year in Omaha, Denzell joined the College Possible his junior year at Benson High School. He said his College Possible coach Jenny Wysocki motivated and encouraged him when he needed it most.

“She was patient with me my senior year and always wanted to help me. She stayed on me and kept reminding me that the hard work was going to be worth it in the end. Persistency is key. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have made it this far. It was her guidance that helped me get to where I wanted to go.”

Denzell was awarded the Susan Thompson Buffett Scholarship and graduated from Benson High School in 2013. He went to University of Nebraska Omaha to join the choir and study music entrepreneurship.

He graduated in 2018 and knew what he wanted to do. Thanks to the recommendation by staff, Denzell decided to apply to become a coach and serve students like him.

“I already knew I wanted to be a coach for two years. It was a good fit.”

Denzell Clements, 2013

Now, as a coach at UNO, Denzell helps students navigate life and college responsibilities. He’s a listener, motivator and someone who likes to build confidence in others, reminding students their worth on campus.

“The stresses that they go through I can relate,” he said. “My favorite part is the relationships I’ve built with those students. It’s building those bonds, going through failures and triumphs. I’ve been blessed and fortunate to have gone through this program, and I took what they installed in me.”

College Possible serves students on campus from the Office of Multicultural Affairs and coaches support nearly 600 undergraduate UNO students on their path to earning a college degree.

College Program Manager Alisha Limoges said Denzell has many qualities and traits that make him a great coach. One of her favorite traits is his ability to center service around purpose and mission.

“Denzell is constantly asking those of us at College Possible along with his students, “What is your why?” He reminds us to connect with that essential force that motivates us and to lean on it when the days are long. I have so appreciated his ability to motivate and inspire others, especially me.”

Being a coach has been a great learning and growing experience, Denzell said. He’s gained knowledge about college success, developed strong relationships and grown as a young professional.

“Having my experiences and being on campus, I get to help so many students and know them. I’ve gained confidence to talk to people and learned how to relate to others. That’s important to being able to help someone.”

Decker Schneider

Decker began serving students in August 2019 as a coach at Papillion – La Vista High School. Just four years prior, he was there as a student in the program there, graduating from PLVHS in 2015.

“My College Possible coach in high school is one of the reasons I ended up returning. She was great, a very bold leader. We had one-on-one sessions together, and she said ‘You’d be really good at this job.’ I always had that in my mind.”

After high school, Decker went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., majoring in American Studies with a minor in Spanish. In college, he also found a passion for film-making and studied abroad in Madrid, Spain.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Decker returned to Omaha to work on film-making, bringing him back to a community he knew.

“This move allowed me to give back to the organization which has encouraged me to follow my dreams. I came back to College Possible, because I wanted to give back,” Decker said.

Decker said the high school program was instrumental in his journey to and through college.

“It was my coach seeing the potential in me and relaying that back to me, and recognizing my value as a student. Working on my college essay, she just reminding me that I should go to college. She would ask ‘Why would you waste your potential?'”

Decker Schneider, 2014

Decker serves high school juniors at his alma mater. It’s knowing the school, culture and staff at the Papillion – La Vista High School that has been the most helpful, he said.

“I understand the culture of the school which has helped me connect with the students. I feel comfortable going in and talking to them, and knowing where my students are coming from, because I was once at their school.”

“As a student, your imagination of what you can do is limited to what you know, so I offer what I know now after being in college, all the opportunities out there for them, even as simple as study aboard.”

High School Program Coordinator Brian McNeill said Decker has is a great coach, ally to students and supporter of College Possible.

“Decker has been a great coach, because he is very understanding and passionate about helping students. He is always willing to listen to his students and continues to be a positive support for them and the organization,” he said.

Decker also learned more about minority students’ experience in school, including his own.

“Being a College Possible coach has allowed me to put my experience in high school into perspective and the opportunities I got through college and College Possible.”

This term of national service as a coach has been a fulfilling one for Decker, although, disappointed in-person service was cut short this spring. He said he’s gained professional skills, impacted the lives of students and made professional relationships with College Possible staff.

“They make me feel that I can be an effective communicator, leader and teacher of whatever I choose. Working with the curriculum, trying to adapt it to not only my student’s needs, but in a way I feel confident instructing it, it’s been very encouraging and built confidence.”

Coaches term of service began in August 2019 and will conclude Tuesday, June 30. To join next year’s team of high school and college coaches, apply to become an AmeriCorps member and make an impact in the Omaha community.

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