Learning for a Change

learningforachange

Come summer, high school students descend on Drew to test-drive college.

By Mary Jo Patterson

Meet Stephen Jones. Tall. Slender. Seventeen years old. Motivated student at West Side High School in Newark, N.J. Decided to become a botanist after seeing his first Venus flytrap. Dislikes being compared to his father, who is absent from his life.

“I am Stephen Jones, a strong young man. I am not him. I will never go down his path. Every day I do something just to set myself aside from him,” he confides to a rapt audience in Room 120 at Brothers College, where he is attending Drew’s Summer College. There are 11 students in the program this particular week, and on this final day they will deliver an extemporaneous speech about themselves for a mini-course in public speaking.

A few, like Jones (large photo, left), reveal uncomfortable truths. Some describe their hopes and dreams. One thing is clear—the apprehension most felt when arriving six days earlier from Newark by bus is gone. They have slept in a dorm, eaten their meals with Drew student mentors and absorbed college-level lectures. And after only one week in this setting, some are thinking differently about the future.

“It was life changing. I learned a lot,” Jones says. “I definitely want to go to college.”

Summer College has become an institution at Drew, hosting 350 students since it was introduced in 2007 by Wendy Kolmar, professor of English and director of women’s and gender studies. During four weeks this summer it brought to campus a total of 66 teenagers from Newark and New York City to broaden their horizons. “It’s about giving students who don’t necessarily come from strong schools or strong academic backgrounds the sense that they can succeed, ” Kolmar says. “For many kids, it’s a huge leap to imagine themselves as a college student. Here they have faculty telling them, ‘This is an introductory college course, and you just asked a great question.’”

Summer College students also leave with practical know-how about applying to college and getting financial aid. Seventy percent are accepted at colleges, and a few enroll at Drew. The program, which costs about $20,000 per week, is funded by private donors, including the Teagle Foundation in New York, the Prudential Foundation in Newark, Provident Bank and Bank of America. Many colleges across the country operate summer programs for disadvantaged high school students, but Summer College is unique, according to Kolmar. “It’s not in a marginal relationship with the university. Faculty teach. Our own students are mentors,” she says.

Lecture topics are all over the board, and deliberately not the staples of high school. This year they included architecture and a lab on the mammalian dive reflex. There were workshops on writing and research. Evening activities included a barbecue and a poetry reading. But some of the most transformative moments occurred during free time, when mentors and mentees talked and bonded.

“These are students who came from the same community I came from,” says Drew mentor Omaru Washington ’15, a graduate of Science Park High School in Newark. “I can relate to them. They have passion. They have drive. They ask questions. I give advice, and they listen.”

By the end of Summer College, even high school students who had been homesick the first night are sad to bid Drew adieu. “On Friday night, when the bus comes, they cling to the mentors,” Kolmar says. “They’re texting them even before they get home. It’s been such a powerful experience.”

A week may seem like too short a time to change young lives, but Rodney Gilbert, an adjunct professor of theatre arts who prepped the students for their speeches, says it happens.

“What can happen in a week? The possibilities are endless,” he says. “They’re in a setting where they’re engaged and have the support of other kids on campus. They get the chance to dream and figure out their futures.”

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