Alumni Spotlight: Maryam Trowell, Live It Learn It

Posted in Spotlight

Maryam Trowell is currently a Co-Executive Director at Live It Learn It, which partners with schools and cultural institutions to create and deliver experiential learning opportunities for students in order to increase their self-efficacy, build on their intrinsic motivation, and support their scholarly achievements. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Maryam about her experience working in children’s education and her experience in the Center’s Executive Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership Program.

Tell me about your background and what led you to working with Live It Learn It (LILI)?

I’m a very proud alum of Agnes Scott college. While there, I realized I wanted to have some sort of an impact on the world. After graduating, I taught at an elementary school in Southeast DC. I noticed how the principal, Michelle Edwards, went out and got so many resources for our school that didn’t even have walls beside the ones holding up the building; we had to use partitions to divide the classes. But she would go out and get everything we needed to enrich students’ lives because that was something she cared so much about. 

I continued teaching for a while, but after my second kid, I felt that I couldn’t be fully present for both my students and my family. So I left classroom teaching and joined the nonprofit world at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Eventually, Michelle (who at this point was now the Executive Director of LILI) reached out for some help on a project. I joked with her that one day I was going to take her job– she laughed and basically said “That’s why I’m bringing you on!” 

When I came onboard to LILI full-time, on one of the first trips I took the students on a boat and for many of them, that was their first time being on the water. I thought, “What an opportunity that I have to really be part of these foundational years for kids.” By working with Live It Learn It, I get to be a part of somebody else’s childhood over and over again every single year. I’ve been a co-executive director with Erin McSpadden for about two years now. And I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

What is the larger impact of connecting kids to their environment through academic trips? What is it that makes this model work?

First and foremost, there’s so much research that goes into how kids learn best by doing. When I was a teacher, so much of what the fourth and fifth graders did was learn through reading about new topics, but I just didn’t have the time or the resources to bring that reading to life. And so that’s what LILI does. We’re showing that learning extends far beyond just the confines of the classroom. And that’s important for students for whom the classroom may not be a space where they’ve been successful before. 

LILI demonstrates to kids that every day is an opportunity to learn. Every single time you walk out of the house, all of that is learning, and all of that learning is meaningful. I also think that experiences with cultural institutions help broaden students’ perspectives and foster a deeper understanding of the world around them. We’re connecting them to their community and its history, which enhances their sense of belonging. We want to help them understand that this city is their city, and they’re Washingtonians––even more so than the folks that come in and visit–so why not take advantage of everything?

Can you share any fun anecdotes about a kid who participated in a trip with LILI?

I just love being with third through fifth graders– everything is eye-opening. One time we visited the Vietnam Women’s Memorial and had one student whose grandparents were from Vietnam. We were talking to the students and sharing a little bit of information about the sculpture, and this student asked, “Can I say something?” And we said by all means, of course! He shared what he had learned directly from his grandparents and their experience being in Vietnam and then coming to the U.S. He gave us a completely different perspective and knew so much more about the war than the rest of us did. We were supposed to go to the Lincoln Memorial after, but we never made it because he had something to say and something he wanted to share. All the students were listening; they were spellbound. His teacher pulled me to the side and told me he doesn’t normally talk in class. So we were standing in the corner realizing, wow, this is a big moment. He was able to be a teacher and share something that other students wouldn’t have known about him. So that was a beautiful moment, and I will never forget that. 

What are some of the most pressing challenges or emerging trends that you’ve experienced in the education sector, and how has LILI addressed them?

I think anyone in the nonprofit sector is going to answer that question by talking about funding– there’s no way to get around that conversation. We’ve had increased costs due to inflation. Buses are more expensive… there’s the cost of gas. Those rising costs, particularly in transportation expenses since we bring students from one part of the city to another, present a significant challenge for us. And so we are working now to diversify our funding streams or funding sources.

After the 2020 civil unrest, there was a big push to support educational organizations and help address societal inequalities. But so much of that is being done at the national and systematic level. And yes, we need those big changes, but we also need support at the local level until that systematic change happens. We need to think about who’s being left behind while everyone is focused on systematic changes. Additionally, in the aftermath of COVID, I think a lot of educators had high hopes that the educational landscape would shift, especially since the student’s regular testing cycles were disrupted. Schools were finding other ways to have students learn and demonstrate their learning. But we’ve gone back to testing, testing, testing, testing. 

LILI works predominantly in schools that are in high-poverty neighborhoods. And data has shown that they have substantial gaps in testing scores. But the way in which that’s being filled is by constantly assessing the students. Even at LILI where our entire organization is about taking students to museums and having them learn in other ways, we’re being asked by partner teachers to add in more and more writing. But I don’t want to add in more writing– I want to add more artmaking, more exploring, and more creative means for kids to learn about what they’re doing in schools. So that’s been a challenge, too. We keep trying to work collaboratively with our schools and communities and other stakeholders to overcome these barriers of access so that all students are able to thrive not only academically but individually, personally, socially, and emotionally as well.

As a participant in the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program, what motivated you to enroll, and what key takeaways did you get from the program?

Enrolling in the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program was a pivotal decision. For me– and I think my co-ED would say this as well– it really just allowed me to walk confidently in this nonprofit sector. I firmly believe that teachers can do all things. You can put a teacher who’s been in the classroom for 11 years in any situation, and we’re gonna rock it because that’s what you have to do in order to be a teacher. But there’s confidence that is needed when you’re in a space that’s outside of what you’re used to. And that’s what the program did for me. I didn’t have any prior experience being an Executive Director. I hadn’t been training for it. I wasn’t in the nonprofit world for that long. So, greater confidence is the biggest thing that I took away.

There are also the practical tools that I’ve received; all of the resources we got have been really instrumental in my role. One of the sessions was on strategic planning, and I used my capstone project as an opportunity to develop LILI’s strategic plan. Now I’m the one who is driving the development of our strategic plan. I wouldn’t have known how to even get started without the help from the program. I would have spent so much time trying to figure out how to do it correctly. I also knew nothing about board relationships and board governance. But as an ED, you need to have that information. So, I learned a lot from the program, but number one was gaining confidence.

What advice would you give to professionals considering participating in this program? 

Simple, do it. Just do it. Being able to commit to the program with the support of our board and staff, who allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in that experience, was just transformative. Not only did we gain essential knowledge and skills that have enhanced our leadership ability, but we’ve become part of this really supportive community of peers that I still keep in touch with. So, the short answer is simple: do it. Allow yourself to be fully present for the time that you’re doing it and it will pay dividends that you’ll realize even more of later.

Looking ahead, what do you envision for the future of Live It Learn It? 

Expanding our partnerships with cultural institutions is a key focus. I want to make sure that all of the resources here in DC are accessible to students, regardless of their neighborhood or background. I would also love to grow our volunteer pool, especially with the city becoming more gentrified. I believe school communities are really the foundation of a neighborhood. I want Live It Learn It to serve as a place of connection so that if you live within a community, but maybe you don’t have children going to the local school, you still can be part of that school community by volunteering with LILI and sharing your knowledge. Ultimately, I care most about continuing to provide opportunities for kids – whether it’s with expanding partnerships or bringing in volunteers – to students’ ignite curiosity and foster their sense and love of learning, and enable them to feel welcome in their city, because this is their city.