By Joanna Moore

In countless movies, TV shows, and books, urban youth are told that education is their ticket out of poverty, and their ticket out of the neighborhood where they grew up. It’s true in the movies, and it’s true in reality. Only about half of inner city youth in America graduate from high school. These stories are still being told because no one has found an adequate solution to that underlying problem of valuing education. What is the value of your education when the goal is to escape where you grew up and start over? And what is the point if a few individuals are able to improve their own lives if they do not help others do so?

Maybe the solution is giving urban youth the opportunity to affect change in their communities, allowing them to visualize their impact in the long run. This is the approach taken by the national nonprofit organization BuildOn. They work to end the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service learning programs in American cities, as well as the construction of sustainable schools abroad. Currently, the organization is working with fifty high schools in Chicago, Detroit, New York, the Bay Area, Boston, and Connecticut. They participate in local community service and they have built over 1,000 schools abroad in Burkina Faso, Haiti, Mali, Malawi, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Senegal. The best part is that the people breaking ground on schools overseas are the same ones who are dedicated to service-learning at their high schools.

Students participate in service-learning at Casa Nueva Vida.

Students participate in service-learning by painting a mural at Casa Nueva Vida in Jamaica Plain.

These students take on the challenge of racking up service hours to receive the privilege of helping to build a school for another community. When they reach their goal and go on the trip, they get to witness firsthand the excitement for education in the area. This excitement is guaranteed, as BuildOn will not enter an area that does not express an explicit want for a new school. Citizens truly take ownership of improving education in their villages. Every person must sign or thumbprint a contract stating that they want the school, that they will enroll an equal number of boys and girls, and that the school will hold night classes for adults. The teachers and administrators are all local citizens as well, and they develop their own curriculum

When the American high school students enter, they have already taken the time to improve  their own community, and now they can take part in helping another. The lengths people across the globe have gone to gain access to education reinforces what the students have learned through their community service experiences. BuildOn’s multi-layered approach is working, with 1.3 million service hours completed and 1,053 schools built to date. Their latest endeavor is adding college chapters to mentor the high school students. Northeastern’s chapter was one of the very first.


Northeastern BuildOn members smile for the camera.

Each week, a group of Northeastern BuildOn members travel to the Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH) in Dorchester to participate in service projects alongside its high school students. The Northeastern BuildOn members are there to add another dimension to the opportunities education can provide—to introduce the value of college. The Northeastern students are also motivated to do more by these students who spend so many hours giving back to their communities – in 2015-2016 the high school participants served 4,068 hours. The Northeastern chapter has really embraced BuildOn as a whole. Currently, the chapter is fundraising so they can participate in building a school abroad themselves, and doing service projects as a club to give back to the Boston community. In three short semesters, members have taken on fundraising and service to become part of BuildOn’s global network.

If you are interested in joining BuildOn, please email for more information

If you would like to learn more about BuildOn’s history and impact, visit