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Putting his community ahead of his education: the story of LU student Jacob Pitawanakwat

The born multitasker works with Wikwemikong Board of Education, and Innovations for Learning on a quest to improve literacy rates among youth

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It took quite a bit of balancing work and life, but LU student Jacob Pitawanakwat recently completed his third year in computer science. “I was bouncing back and forth between work and school when I found an opportunity to supply-teach full time.” When he wasn’t in class, he offered his services as a supply teacher for the Wikwemikong Board of Education (WBE) anywhere from kindergarten to grade eight. “I’ve been finding this passion within myself both for software which I found through Laurentian, and for working with students, in particular young kids!" Little did he know, his particular skill set would soon be needed more than ever before.

While Jacob was working with WBE, a new organization set up shop in Wikwemikong. Innovations for Learning (IFL), an organization which strives to improve literacy for all, has goals which dovetail with Jacob's own. “Once I heard that IFL was coming to Canada and supporting Wikwemikong, I realized, WOW, these are my two favorite things all lump summed into one!” 

IFL provided him an excellent opportunity to merge his love for teaching with his love for computer science. “It was kind of a no brainer for me to try and get involved in any way that I could. So I started at IFL as an early literacy interventionist.” This is where his passion for teaching, technology, and supporting his community came together. 

Jacob says that one of the most rewarding aspects of working with children is watching the learner's eyes light up as they start to grasp the concepts he's teaching them. “It’s such a cheerful moment, we celebrate their progress.” He shared how gratifying it is to see these kids’ confidence grow as their skills improve, and watch them achieve goal after goal. 

When COVID-19 hit in March, closing the country, and subsequently closing schools, Jacob took it upon himself to find a way to provide students with the support they needed. Motivated by the effects of the pandemic, Jacob decided to take a year off school to dedicate all his attention to helping students. “The demand is too high. I don’t want to leave these students without help. Children shouldn’t have to choose between their education and their safety,” said Jacob in a recent interview. 

Every day Jacob spends the first four hours working directly with WBE to support the children. The rest of his day is devoted to program management activities such as outreach, maintaining relationships, and identifying more schools. His background in computer science has put him in an excellent position to support data recording, data analysis, and to provide technical support for IFL users. 

Jacob recruited Eric Greene, who is currently completing his fourth year in Sports Administration at Laurentian University. Eric works as a corporate partnerships officer with IFL, leading the charge for the Greater Sudbury District. “If we do manage to start operations at a school in Sudbury, it will have been made possible because of the work Jacob and I have done,” said Eric in a recent interview. Jacob and Eric work tirelessly to identify and reach out to schools in the Greater Sudbury Area in need of IFL’s support. “I just think that it’s an extremely rewarding process being able to make a change in the community that we both grew up in.” Jacob hopes to someday incorporate Anishinaabemowin into the program when more funding is secured. 

According to WBE, this program has had a huge impact on literacy levels in the school. With IFL’s TeacherMate implemented in Wikwemikong, they were able to increase grade-level reading proficiency by 68%, and increase students' ability to recognize all characters in the alphabet correctly by 32%. Click here to learn more about the impact they are having on the community.

For now, Jacob has dedicated his full attention to the needs of the students in Wikwemikong. He hopes to return to university to complete his degree when the pandemic subsides and the students’ needs become less urgent. Jacob has shown that what he has learned from the University stretches far beyond computer science, but extends into leadership and selflessness.