Inspiring Harlem’s Youth to Pursue Education

Daily Princetonian – Inspiring Harlem’s Youth to Pursue Education

By Erica Che
Senior Writer
Published: Monday, February 15th, 2010 – Daily Princetonian

Do college students have curfews?” a curious sixth-grader asked a panel of five Princeton undergraduates Friday morning. The answer, “no,” came as a surprise to the middle schooler.

The panel discussion was part of several activities led by Students for Education Reform (SFER), a group of undergraduates that volunteered on a campus expedition which brought roughly 25 middle-school students from Global Neighborhood Secondary School (GNSS), in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhoods to campus. The effort, coordinated by Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC), aimed to expose the sixth and seventh graders to college life through a dorm-room visit, a tour of Woolworth Hall and a student discussion panel.

PBC, which is affiliated with the University, partners with urban schools and community organizations in the New Jersey, New York City and Philadelphia areas to offer enrichment activities and in-school programming to underprivileged students.

Dinah Jordan, programs and curriculum coordinator at PBC, explained that a main goal of this trip was to encourage students to begin thinking early about college plans.

“How you think about it today can change [or] it can stay the same, but it’s still not too early to own that thought of, ‘I want to go to college,’” Jordan said.

SFER volunteers led the middle-school students in small groups that rotated through the various activities. At the student panel, current undergraduates spoke about their college experiences, including favorite courses, life away from home, the social scene and extracurricular activities.

“One thing I really liked to see was the college students talking about the fact that they actually study because they want to, and that took some of the kids by surprise,” said Bryan Glover, a sixth-grade science teacher at GNSS.

During a tour of Woolworth, Nathan Pell ’12 showed students classrooms, practice rooms and the Mendel Music and Dance Library, and spoke about some of the music programs and groups on campus. The groups also visited a  dorm room in Feinberg Hall.

“Some of the students really got into the trip to the dorm,” Glover said. “They like to see how regular college students live and spend their time.”

Julia Blount ’12, a member of SFER who helped organize the event, said it was an opportunity for SFER members to talk to individual middle-school students to “make sure we don’t forget why we are doing education reform … We have to keep them in mind when we are talking about theoretical education changes.”

“That’s the big thing — for our members to interact with the kids and think more about education reform on a personal level, and for the kids, to promote college awareness,” Blount said.

Jeremy Kent ’12, a PBC program assistant who worked on organizing the event, noted that Friday’s trip was an extension of the in-school programming that PBC already does with GNSS.

“We do what’s known as social and emotional learning, which provides the building blocks for kids to be more self-sufficient, to learn teamwork, to learn leadership, so that their vision is broadened,” Carol Christofferson, who is director of development for PBC, said.

Kent added that another goal of the campus expedition was to get University students more involved with PBC.

Kent noted that holding an event on campus — rather than in cities, as PBC normally does — and using undergraduate volunteers helped to “strengthen [PBC’s] ties with the University.”

“Historically, PBC has been a really closely associated organization with the University, but recently — at least in the last 10 years or so — it’s become kind of distant,” Kent explained.

Glover said that the idea for the campus expedition stemmed from a proposal to bring students to the 263-acre PBC campus in Blairstown, N.J., to collect data for a science project. He and Jordan then began to entertain the idea of a trip to the University incorporating an overview of campus life. The original plans for the campus expedition on Friday included a lab activity where students would take measurements of trees around campus, but this segment was cut off by time constraints after the GNSS group received incorrect directions and arrived late.

In addition to its relationship with GNSS, PBC has also partnered with the Foundation Academy Charter School in Trenton and has arranged four more similar campus-expedition events this spring for students from these schools.

The next campus trip for GNSS is scheduled for March 5, Glover said, when the students will have a chance to tour a University science lab. Jordan added that PBC plans to expand the campus-expedition program to address specific areas of study.

“We visualize this to be something that we can do at least twice a year with the schools — once in the fall, once in the spring — and [at] each event have a theme,” Jordan explained. “As we move forward with this project, we would like to theme it around subject areas, like in the fall we’ll visit departments or the part of campus that is math and science. In the spring, we’ll visit those areas of the arts.”

Dejah Lynch, a seventh-grade teacher at GNSS, said she felt one of the benefits of the campus-expedition trip was for the middle-school students to meet University students who might inspire them to continue their education.

“One of the largest challenges is to get people to open up their minds and be flexible,” Lynch said, “to … not generalize and feel limited because you might be from a background that’s ‘struggling’ or ‘impoverished’ … that the world is open to you, and basically have control of that.”

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