Melissa Bandera considers herself “the nurturer” in her family. Though she is the youngest of four siblings, the 22-year-old said she feels like a “second mom,” always up for helping out and caring for her loved ones, especially her littlest cousins.
“I’ve always been the one who’s been more patient with other children,” Bandera said. “They say that my patience is crazy. ‘How can [you] do it?’ I don’t know. It just comes naturally.”
And it naturally led Bandera to study early childhood education at Concordia University Chicago where she has spent the majority of her time working at the early childhood education center on campus. For the past four years, Bandera, an incoming college senior, has slipped into the rhythm of working at the center part-time during the school year and full-time over the summer, interacting with children under 6 from around the community. The experience, she said, has given her the tools and the confidence to pave her path forward.
“I’ve grown a lot since I started, and that’s also [because] the kids helped me,” she said. “I know how to react, or I know how to make my next choice, or [solve] my problem.”
The River Forest-based university first created an early childhood center in 1976, and it has been a constant resource for families in River Forest and surrounding communities and even students outside the education program, said Catherine Gruenwald, the center’s executive director and a CUC alumna. The center, which was once located in the basement of one of the campus buildings and later moved to the Christopher Center, offers a range of services for children 6 weeks to 6 years old. Half-day preschool, full-day kindergarten classes and daycare are among them.
Gruenwald said the center provides two ways for university students to get involved. Like Bandera, CUC students can apply to be a “lab student” at the center. During the school year, they can work a part-time position, with hours ranging from 5 to 20 per week. Lab students — which in the past have included athletes, undergraduate and graduate students — typically assist teachers in classrooms, serve lunch, change diapers and clean up at the end of each day. They receive the same training as teachers do based on standards of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
“We do rely on them to be that third set of eyes in the room,” Gruenwald said, adding that they need to be aware of handling food properly and safe sleep for babies. “They have to do professional development just like we do.”
“Teachers are still the teachers,” she continued, “but if there’s something happening that needs some classroom management-type skills, we want them to feel comfortable doing that as well.”
The center also partners with CUC’s education program, which allows students studying early childhood education to get practical experience. Students in their methods courses can often try out their lesson plans on the children and see what works and what doesn’t, Gruenwald said.
“Our teachers work with them, critique them, give them pointers,” she said, adding that the center aims to build out a network of support for students in the education program.
Much of that changed, especially during the first wave of the COVID pandemic.
The early childhood center employs about 100 students in any given school year, but that number dipped when the suburban university closed during the spring of 2020 and later switched to remote learning that fall, Gruenwald said. With most of the students at home, she struggled to fill in the vacant spots at the center and expanded the hiring to include people not affiliated with CUC.
Apart from that, she said the pandemic’s safety measures and guidelines conflicted with the basic lessons of early childhood education. “It went against everything that we believe in in early childhood — free rein, free exploration. We were trying to teach them how to share, and we couldn’t.”
Bandera was one of the few students able to work at the center during that early onset of the pandemic and remembered the rules shifted the learning experience. The cleaning process specifically became more intense, she said.
“As soon as a kid grabbed a toy and they put it in their mouth, we grabbed it right away, and then we put it in a bin. It was no longer available until we washed the toys,” she said, recalling how hard it was to help 2-year-olds put on face masks and make sure they stayed on, but after those first few tries, it all became part of the new routine.
While COVID mitigations have eased in the last two years, Gruenwald said the center is still feeling some of the pandemic’s impacts, mostly with hiring lab students. As the university prepares to reopen fully for the second year in a row, she hopes to bring onboard more student workers to the center.
“It’s coming back, but it’s slow,” she said.
With the end of summer drawing near, Bandera and Holly Hanrahan, another lab student, reflected on the last few months at the center. Unlike Bandera, Hanrahan, a college senior, said this was her first time working with children.
She heard about an open position at the childhood center from a friend and decided to apply. A psychology major with an interest in art therapy, the 21-year-old Hanrahan said she wanted to work with younger children.
“I got placed in the classroom with all the kids going into kindergarten,” she said. “That was helpful for me because they’re all at an age where they can participate in art things without it being too difficult for them. It’s been really helpful just to learn about how kids approach art and learn how they develop.”
Bandera offered up a memory. On her first day at the center, she was instructed to work with the infants, and one of them “pooped” on her.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was so confused,” she said, laughing. Up until that point, she had only held babies who belonged to family relatives. It’s all part of the job, she said.
Bandera likened that experience to the early childhood center’s mission and commitment to children’s growth.
“This specific center really has a great handle on how the development process works,” she said. “They just really care about the kids and making sure they are developmentally ready for their next stage. … Even if they don’t think they’re ready, they’re always ready.”
Want to get involved?
The early childhood education center is currently hiring CUC students for paid positions this fall. For more information, email program manager Brooke Cermak at firstname.lastname@example.org.