Katie Paul poses for a photograph.
Katie Paul. Photo by Mikala Compton

Story by Erik Potter

Katie Paul thought her experience in public schools in Columbia was standard for American students. Five service trips to elementary schools in other cities, states and countries have taught the senior education major otherwise.

It started with a Mizzou Alternative Breaks (MAB) trip to Atlanta during the second semester of her junior year. She had transferred to Mizzou the previous fall.

Paul spent a week at an elementary school in a low-income area. She had had no experience in that particular setting, yet she had a preconception that the students would be struggling. “All that was smashed the minute I walked in there,” Paul says.

Paul spent the week in one kindergarten classroom. She took video — which she still keeps — of the teacher, impressed by how she incorporated math and money counting into the daily routine. The students could count well past 100 and write sentences with periods. Those skills aren’t impossible for kindergarteners, but they aren’t universal. Yet they were expected in that classroom.

“It changed me,” Paul says. It opened her to what she didn’t know.

Since, Paul has organized three weekend MAB trips to KIPP Endeavor Academy, a public charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. She has helped set up the school library, paint a teachers’ lounge and even recruit students, all while expanding her idea of what a public school can look like.

Paul has also taken an international MAB trip, traveling to Nicaragua to teach English to schoolchildren.

The mountain school’s sparse classrooms surrounded an open courtyard. “You have this idea you’re going to help poor, helpless children — but no,” Paul says. She learned as much from them as they did from her. She learned to use gestures to communicate beyond the spoken word, rediscovered the joy of recess and felt the peace of living in the moment.

“It was the best week of my life,” says Paul, who wants to teach English as a Second Language.

“I wish I had come to Mizzou sooner and done MAB as soon as I planted feet on campus,” she says. “I tell people all the time, it will literally change your life.”