Zaymon Harris graduated from the College of Education with a BES on Saturday. During his time at UMSL, Harris interned with Beyond Housing, an organization dedicated to helping communities succeed through individual programs and policy efforts focused on education, housing, health, job training, economic development and personal finance. This past summer, Harris helped develop the organization’s first virtual summer camp. His “Young King” sweatshirt was fashioned for him by one of his students, Leilani Billups. (Photo by August Jennewein)

During Zaymon Harris’ senior year of high school, he was certain that he wanted to study chemistry or chemical engineering.

Then he heard something about his time volunteering at Beyond Housing’s after-school program that changed everything.

“One of the parents there came up to me and told me about how much of a difference I made in their child’s life,” Harris said. “That’s really what made me want to go into education.”

This weekend Harris graduated from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with a bachelor’s in educational studies with a focus in child and adult development.

During his time at UMSL, Harris has interned at Beyond Housing, an organization dedicated to helping communities succeed through individual programs and policy efforts focused on education, housing, health, job training, economic development and personal finance.

This past summer, he helped conduct the organization’s virtual summer camp and took a leadership role to keep it running when the supervisor went on bereavement leave. He also helped the after-school program transition to a virtual format during the fall semester.

For all the positive work he’s done at UMSL and Beyond Housing, Harris started his academic career as an elementary education major at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Unfortunately, continuing classes at Missouri S&T would not be financially feasible.

It was difficult, but he decided to transfer to UMSL, which was more affordable and closer to his home in St. Louis.

“That was pretty tough because I was leaving all of my friends, and I didn’t really know anybody,” Harris said. “It was like starting all over again, but I ended up making a couple friends. The whole experience was nice. I felt welcome.”

Shortly after transferring to UMSL, and completing observations at a number of schools. Harris decided that he was best suited outside of the classroom. He switched to the BES program under the influence of Ellen Duncan, the program’s academic advisor.

Despite the challenge, Harris succeeded academically and worked to complete his degree under extraordinary circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, he completed his degree-required internships at his place of work, the Pagedale Family Support Center, with Beyond Housing’s youth programs.

Harris was one of five interns serving as counselors, and he helped develop the organization’s first virtual summer camp. However, it started with something no one saw coming. Their supervisor’s partner, known as “Mr. Ted,” passed away. This was a heartbreaking loss as he impacted the lives of many including Harris.

“After he passed, all of the team was affected,” Harris said. “We all had a connection to him. He was one of my mentors.”

Their supervisor and program coordinator went on leave, which meant the programming and day-to-day operations of the camp fell to Harris and his coworkers. They planned each day’s activities, established standard processes, led parent meetings and organized the end-of-program finale event. Harris took on important roles to make sure things ran smoothly.

“I was in charge of technical things, so I had to make sure all the computers were working,” he said. “I made sure that the kids were in the right classrooms, and I led the debriefs at the end of the day where we discussed the day and tried to plan for the next day.”

Each counselor also had their own classroom. Harris taught “level ones,” children in kindergarten through second grade. He noted that one of the principal goals of the camp was to foster enthusiasm for reading among the students.

To do so, the counselors employed the Children’s Defense Fund literacy curriculum.

“We would read a book and then discuss it and do activities based on the book,” Harris said. “One of the main points of the literacy program was not to teach them how to read but instill the love of reading to get them to want to read. It wasn’t about who can read, who can’t read, who can write or any of those things. It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to read this story together. Then we’re going to understand this story together. That way, it’ll make you want to go out and read more stories and try to understand those stories.’”

The curriculum is designed for in-person instruction, so Harris and the other counselors were a bit nervous about how it would translate digitally. Though they were faced with many challenges, the program ended up being an overall success. Harris said the kids responded well and were engaged throughout the summer.

Duncan was impressed with what he was able to accomplish under the circumstances.

“His perseverance and hard work are a great example of how educators, formal and informal, have adapted to our current world to provide quality experiences and support for students,” she said.

When the camp ended, Harris interned for Beyond Housing’s after-school program as an instructor. The program started off welcoming students in person. However, due to recent events, the program was forced to go fully virtual.

It’s been challenging as many area schools have moved to virtual classes, making some parents wary to keep their children in front of a computer even longer. Harris and his colleagues have been doing their best to make it a positive experience, though.

“We’ve been working, trying to figure out how we can make virtual after school engaging and meaningful and make them want to log in,” he said.

Harris will have more time to work on the issue, as he intends to continue working with the program after graduation. Eventually, he wants to use what he’s learned at Beyond Housing and UMSL to strike out on his own.

“I’ve been working with kids ever since graduating high school and really found a passion for it,” he said. “It’s something I really plan to do with my life. In the future, I plan to start my own youth program to inspire the kids how I’ve been inspired to be the best me.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe

Eye on UMSL: Building blocks

Members of the Spring 2024 graduating class of the University of Missouri–St. Louis play Jenga during the annual New Grad Bash on Thursday.