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A Lesson in Literacy
The following is another story in a series that highlights some of the projects and people of the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public and Community Service, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Sophia Bravo’s commitment as a Syracuse University Literacy Corps tutor always goes back to one thing.
“It’s the kids. Always, always, always the kids,” Bravo ’16 says.
Born and raised in Miami, Bravo, whose first language is Spanish, knows the struggles of students learning English and has a lot to share with them.
“I try to be frank. I tell them ‘I hadn’t had it easy either, but I understand your experiences and they are valid. And they make you that much of a better person,’” says Bravo, who tutors at Seymour Dual Language Academy. “I think having that role model is really important for students.”
Syracuse University students who participate in the literacy programs of the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public and Community Service come with many different motivations. Some may be drawn to the work because of their experience or background in engagement; others are interested in education or need to complete an academic requirement.
But they remain because of the relationships they develop with the youngsters, the give and take of two students—different ages but both engaged learners—who have much to learn from each other.
Colleen (McAllister) Cicotta, associate director of literacy initiatives at the Shaw Center, sees how the University students take away a new perspective from their experience.
“Primarily the charge for me is to help Syracuse University students be more critical thinkers. It has this added benefit of helping youth in the community,” Cicotta says. “It’s also rewarding to see this very diverse group of SU students—no matter which college they’re enrolled in or where they come from—go into the city schools and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect to make this connection.’”
The tutors realize how similar they are to the students. “If they can see how they have so much in common with other people, it will serve them well going forward,” Cicotta says.
The Syracuse University Literacy Corps is the foundation of the Shaw Center’s Literacy Initiatives, which was launched as SU’s response to the “America Reads” challenge in 1997. University students are academically engaged with the Syracuse community through schools and nonprofit organizations.
More than 200 Literacy Corps volunteers, who are federally funded work-study students, go into the community each year. Two other literacy programs—the College of Engineering and Computer Science(formerly LCS)-SRC Engineering Ambassadors and Balancing the Books, a collaboration with the Whitman School of Management—also provide opportunities for nearly 100 additional SU students to apply their knowledge with city schoolchildren in classroom settings each year.
Literacy Corps tutors, as with the other tutoring groups, are provided with training to help them before they enter the classrooms and during their experience. This includes strategies for working with youth and various training seminars throughout the semester, led by school, community and campus presenters.
“School staff members participate in our training, so they know what the tutors come prepared with,” Cicotta says. “They know what to expect and determine how to make good use of the tutors’ time on site.”
Tutors work with the teacher and site supervisor to find out how they can support classrooms. “There may be a couple of students who need extra attention, or you may be helping the teacher in group settings if someone has a question,” says Bravo, a television-radio-film major in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “We become part of the classroom environment.”
Literacy Corps tutors commit to working 8-10 hours, in two or three time periods throughout the week. Bravo, who started as a tutor during freshman year, works this year with fourth graders at Seymour School. Bravo is also a leadership intern with the Shaw Center and on the Corps Council, the corps’ student governing body.
“I work with specific students who may be struggling and help them with their reading strategies,” says Bravo, who assists many students who are new to the United States and are still learning English.
“They talk to me and hear a bit of my Cuban accent, so they begin to feel comfortable talking with me about their concerns,” Bravo says.
The idea of connecting with a community outside of the University resonated with Mileysa Ponce ’15, who became a member of the engineering ambassadors her first year.
“I did a lot of volunteer work and was a high school mentor,” says Ponce, who is majoring in chemical engineering in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “I felt something was missing when I first came on campus; I thought this would be a great opportunity to get involved with something I loved doing.”
The engineering ambassadors program, funded by local research nonprofit SRC, engages students at Danforth School, Westside Academy at Blodgett and Hillside-Work Scholarship Connection. Four intern staff members help oversee about 50 volunteers, who head to the sites on Fridays.
Ponce began as a tutor, before becoming a site coordinator and then the program coordinator, overseeing the site coordinators. The coordinators develop the lesson plans that provide background content that leads to a new project every week.
One project involved building wind turbines; the kits were purchased with the SRC funding. “Students had a lot of leeway—such as adding as many blades as they wanted. We then measured the output of electricity and we compared and contrasted the different designs,” Ponce says.
The University students want to spark a lasting impression with the youngsters and inspire them to pursue the sciences and engineering. “We want to show them they are more than capable of pursuing these fields in high school and college, and this program is giving them that extra motivation,” Ponce says.
In the Balancing the Books program, David Maisel ’14 enjoys the camaraderie with the students and sees it as a way to take what he learns as a finance and accounting student at Whitman and impart that to the younger students.
Funded by a grant from the Whitman School, Balancing the Books allows University students to work with students in Huntington Middle School and Henninger High School on financial literacy. The grant funds student staff members, including Maisel, who help recruit, hire and train student volunteers, and helps with resources.
The University students teach the students about how to balance a checkbook, what it means to invest, ways of investing and how to manage money. Lessons are planned by the coordinators every week but, in the spring, the tutors, who facilitate the programs, can develop their own program.
“They covered a wide range of topics, including proper methods for interviewing for a job and using social media in the professional world,” Maisel says.
Maisel also implemented a team approach at the middle school. The school children were placed in teams and after each session, they would be asked questions in a game-show situation. Points would be added up over the semester, keeping them on their toes and engaged.
Process and grow
Another challenge for students was presenting topics after they learned about them.
“I was a little concerned it might be tough for them to translate the areas of finance and accounting into a middle school understanding,” Maisel says. “But once the kids got up there, they answered the questions and it was clear they understood the information.”
At the high school level, interns get more in depth with the financial management material and delve into issues about when students get their first job.
Volunteering for Balancing the Books fulfills a Whitman requirement for the University students and it allows them to process and grow from what they learn about, Cicotta says.
“It starts a lot of times to satisfy a school requirement, but it turns into something more,” Maisel says. “The kids and tutors develop relationships throughout the year.”
And the campus visit, which brings the students to the University one day every spring, helps build even more connections.
“You see the kids absorb the information and be more open,” Maisel says. “They get more comfortable asking questions and it improves the process even more.”
For the University students, they say being part of the Shaw Center’s literacy programs allows them to develop as leaders and work alongside community members—while building those special connections with youth.
Bravo, who added a minor in education because of the literacy experience, is starting to rethink what to pursue after college. “I’m really good at reaching out and I’m passionate about bilingual education,” Bravo says. “I want to see how I can use my skill set in Newhouse to benefit and help communities that look like where I came from.”