It’s 97 degrees at Amherst College and five high school students are sitting with me in the Russian Literature lounge. None of us are interested in the language; it’s the only air-conditioned room we could find, and we have three days of work ahead of us.
College Summit brought us together, and our challenge is to produce a college essay for each student that will change the course of their life for the better.
Three of the students are from Flushing, Queens. Two are from New Haven. They’re a diverse lot, each with much to offer the world. None have had the intense college prep work teenagers in my suburban town experience. A few risk their lives when they walk out their front doors; some have never enjoyed the unconditional love and support we try to hard to provide our own children.
College Summit works with schools that previously haven’t sent many kids on to college. It recruits the most influential students from these schools and tries to instill in them both the conviction and ability to attend college. The theory is that these students then influence their peers. Based on College Summit’s data, it appears to work.
The four day summer workshop I attended last week serves to let kids spend time on a college campus while they write their college essay and receive a list of recommended colleges.
My wife and I volunteered as Writing Coaches, which means we worked with the students as they wrote. The trick is to let each student use his or her words to show – not tell! – colleges who they are. In the process, we got to know each student in an intense and emotionally moving way. This is not an intellectual exercise, although it challenges your intellect. It is a profoundly human experience.
Their talent is what surprised me. One young woman – I’m respecting her privacy, but you know who you are – got up in front of about 100 of us Saturday night and sang a cappella. She’d mentioned occasionally that music was important to her, but in a matter-of-fact way that didn’t fully register with me, until she captivated the room.
Another young man walked in the first day and told us he would work as hard as it took. He wasn’t kidding, and pushed far past his comfort zone to craft an essay that revealed both his fears and strengths.
None of this was easy. Few people love to write draft after draft after draft, especially in the middle of July.
This country doesn’t just waste energy; it wastes talent, too. Fortunately, you can do something about it. Volunteer.