Motivated by Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow, Camille Ehlers was compelled to move to Chicago’s infamous South Side to make a difference. As a catalyst for change, she embodies the word “educator.” She is committed to providing quality tutoring services and opportunities to youth. We couldn’t wait to sit down with her and learn more about her relentless passion to serve her community! We’re excited to share her story with you, check it out below.
Name: Camille Ehlers
Current Job Title: Site Director, Saga Innovations
Education: University of Nebraska Lincoln
Hometown: Omaha, Nebraska
Undergraduate Major: Business Marketing & Spanish
IO: Why did you choose the college you went to?
CE: I chose this school because I got a scholarship there and it was close to home. I would’ve gone to an HBCU but I just didn’t have the money. It had everything, there’s greek organizations, multicultural organizations, etc.
IO: How did you pay for college? Specific scholarships or grants?
CE: I had multiple scholarships. I got a scholarship in high school by an organization called Girls Inc., a non profit, girls afterschool program. They gave me the bulk of my scholarship because I had been a member since the third grade. Girls Inc. literally changed my life. They became not only your tutor to help with homework, but also your mom, your dad, they were going to show you how to be a woman, how to interact with people, how to speak and communicate. My mom worked many jobs throughout my life so Girls Inc. was like my second mother. They paid for half of my college, the other half was funded through other scholarships. They gave it to me every year. It was awesome, there’s so much money out here. There are so many people that just want to give their money away to pay for students going to school, to young people doing something good, period. Many don’t know it’s available, but it is, even for those who don’t have good grades. If you’re driven, and want something better for your life, someone’s going to support that. They’ll be on your tail. Girls Inc. was on my tail, they asked what are your grades like etc.
IO: It’s really cool to see how things come around because in your role now, you’re helping so many people!
CE: It’s crazy because I have a job but it does not feel like a job. I always thought I was going to be a CEO one day. I thought, I’m going to run a business and be a rich business woman, because I didn’t know what else to say. But now I really understand the quality of life and I understand how we’re all connected. Being able to support one another, and learn and grow. Just being a person while you’re alive, loving and sharing emotions and feelings.
“Forget a job. I want to do something that’s going to be fulfilling and that’s going to last. I wouldn’t change it.”
IO: When did you have that epiphany, that your life was destined to help others?
CE: In 2011 I moved to Spain and taught English and lived there for two years. I graduated and had an offer in Texas to make $50k a year, working in HR but I also had an offer to move to Spain to make 700 Euros a month, which is like $1K a month to teach English. I asked so many people and they all said to go. The quality of life is awesome. You go home and eat with your family! Two hour lunches, beaches, just such a care free, happy environment. People actually genuinely care about you and your well being. I’m actually still in contact with everyone I met there. It was for no gain, no monetary advantage. I had a connection with them. If I ever went to Spain again they would take care of me and likewise if they were ever in Chicago, I would take care of them. Those interactions are priceless. I started to value interactions with people more than my position in life. That started to change how I view success.
IO: What organizations did you join while in college? Were any influential to your current career?
CE: I was very active in organizations like Black Student Government when I first started. But as I got older I separated from student life. I got my own apartment off campus, a lot of my friends were older.
IO: Most influential college professor and/or course?
CE: I don’t think I had an influential one. There was a lady named Ms. Harris, who was white, who taught one of my African American English classes. She was really insightful and gave me a vision that I could do more, I need to do more and know more. There’s a white lady speaking on things that I don’t know about, you know. It influenced me to be more involved in my own learning. I have to take control of what I want to learn and seek out things that make me learn more. Not just getting fed what’s in the curriculum. I need to seek out things that interest me and become and expert on them. She influenced me to be a better learner.
IO: Was interning helpful to landing your current position? What internships did you have?
CE: I interned in a corporate position with Target, and community properties. They gave me a lot of feedback and helped me work with people outside of my race. But overall, my internships did not impact my life. It just gave me something to put on my resume when I first started out.
IO: What’s your favorite college memory?
CE: My grad student friend lived in a huge house in the city we went to school in. We got really close, and when I came back from studying abroad I needed somewhere to live and she opened her home to me. I had only a semester left of college. It was crazy, a big mansion, with a theater. Coming home from school to this lifestyle was like something I never would’ve imagined. They had maids, they had rich neighbors who schooled me on all the finest wines, etc. We had a lot of good times!
IO: What was studying abroad like?
CE: My goal in life is to bring the kids that I work with or to send the type of kids that I work with – that don’t have any knowledge of anything outside of their 4 block radius – to another country. That’s my goal. I think that it’s very important and it really changes your life to see outside of what you’re used to. Some may never even see other areas within the city they live in. That’s my goal to travel the world with a group of students that would not have had the opportunity otherwise and be able to pay for it. Even if it’s just one or two kids in the beginning. I’m hoping to start a scholarship this year for some senior students and see what happens, and grow from there.
IO: What is a typical workday like for you?
CE: Never the same. We provide high dosage tutoring to freshman and sophomore students and some juniors in an in-school environment. You get credit for it, and a grade for coming to tutorial. You get tutored on your curriculum in school as well as state testing strategy. The students that come in are sometimes 3,4,5,6 years behind grade level, some of them don’t know how to read. It’s sad because we’re trying to teach them algebra and they don’t know how to add or subtract, we’re trying to teach them trigonometry and they can’t read a word problem. It’s a lot of back filling. I manage a group of 10 tutors and about 200 students throughout the year between two sites. A typical day is me coming into work and getting the team of tutors excited about the day. I observe tutorials, making sure the math is being taught correctly, making sure the tutors are interacting with the students correctly, using best practices, skills, and behavior management. It’s a lot of correction, protocol and it’s strict. It’s a really creative job of me thinking on my feet. There’s never a dull day. I see what’s on the scope of the week at math department meetings. I’m never sitting at a desk, I love it.
IO: How do you stay motivated in an environment like that everyday? It must be passion.
CE: Passion has a lot to do with it. I don’t know how I stay motivated, but I just really love the kids!
IO: When you’re working with underprivileged kids there’s so many other things that are out of your control, how do you deal with that?
CE: I channel my inner child and say okay you did it. You can’t have a lot of sympathy. You have to have a high expectation and keep it high because there’s so many disadvantages that they have, that you cannot sympathize. You can’t coddle them. Because you don’t have anything you’re going to work 10 times harder today, you’re going to take your headphones out and sit up straight. You’re going to put your phone away, you’re going to listen because you don’t have anything. There’s no time for you to waste. It’s remembering who I was, and I didn’t have anything, and I didn’t get any exceptions. No one said aww Camille, poor thing, you didn’t have a dad, you can slack today.
IO: Has being Black affected your career? If so, how?
CE: It gives me a perspective of how to interact with them. More than I think a lot of people do. Anyone who thinks they’re doing an act of service, that’s the wrong mindset. Because I’m from that situation I know the kids will be okay. They are sustainable; they are strong and have overcome a lot in their lives. It’s knowing I did it, and I know people who have had worst and done more. I want so much more for the kids. I think about all the success stories in the world. There are literally homeless people that started from nothing and created businesses and have done amazing things. It’s remembering my own position. I’m not Beyoncé by any means but I know I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. I was able to go to Paris, London, and Sevilla. I’m from Nebraska, I didn’t have shit. Although I’m not a millionaire, I’ve experienced things some people will never be able to do in their life. You’ve gotta keep going, life is going to get better, you have to do more.
IO: How did you receive insight into your career?
CE: I was reading the New Jim Crow and it spoke a lot about Chicago youth and the way young black men are being targeted. I wanted to help, I knew I couldn’t be a lawyer so what could I do to help them. It sounds really corny and cliché. I just really wanted to come to Chicago to help. I found a tutoring position two years ago through the University of Chicago and it sounded good to me. I’d have the perks of the University incase I wanted to go back for my masters. My best friend lived here so I knew I could stay with her and it kind of just worked out. I wanted to use my influence for a better purpose. I feel that you should do what you want if you feel like you will have a better experience, do it.
IO: What has been the most challenging moment of your career?
CE: I think the most challenging thing is training my mind to accept different levels of achievement. I always find myself saying to some of my students, like you have a D, you’re failing, but to that student they’re at least passing. So it’s like training my mind to accept different levels of achievement. To them a D is fine, they’re proud. It’s training my mind to not be so harsh because their level of achievement is so much different than mine. I’ll still keep the expectation high but I have to be able to advocate for them in spite of their short-coming. It’s really hard to separate my reality from their reality.
IO: What advice would you give your undergraduate self?
CE: I think I made good decisions in college. I studied abroad, had a good group of friends and made good grades. But what was lacking was just taking care of myself. Like mental health, working out, eating good food, not spending money on unnecessary things. It wasn’t spent wisely. I would tell myself to budget and to take better care of myself, and to not eat Burger King in the middle of the night. Now I’m paying for it.
IO: How do you escape on the weekends?
CE: I like to workout a lot. I’ve tapped into cooking. Drinking wine and cooking at the same time is probably my escape. It’s probably my favorite. I like to read. I just finished God Help the Child by Toni Morrison and I’ve been on and off with A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. It’s a motivational type of book and it’s really deep.
IO:Coffee or Tea?
CE:Definitely tea, I drink Green Tea everyday with lemon.
IO: Favorite nail color?
CE: It’s called Passion by OPI, it’s a nude color. I like the natural look. I’m feeling more mature now.
IO: #TeamNatural or #TeamRelaxed?
CE: #TeamNatural for sure, I haven’t put heat on my hair since December.
IO: Best advice you’ve ever received?
CE: Go to Spain. Everyone told me to go, now I’m an advocate for studying abroad and living abroad.
IO: If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be?
CE: Erykah Badu or Solange!
IO: What’s your guilty pleasure?
CE: I like trap music. I workout to the hoodest music, Future, Gucci Mane. It’s funny because I’m always telling kids to stop listening to that garbage, but I’m listening to it too.
IO: Favorite Quote (or lyric)?
CE: “If God is with her she will not fail,” Psalm 46:5 and also “You won’t wake up tomorrow and be the woman you want to be, you have to practice those acts everyday. The type of woman you want to be starts today,” by Michelle Obama.