The Summer Literacy Institute: Where Academia Meets Altruism

This summer, a group of high school students from the Bronx were given the opportunity to come to Manhattan College and spend a week here on campus as a part of a college immersion program. They were able to live in the dorms, see what college courses and professors are like, learn more about college admissions and financial aid, and ultimately leave with a college application essay.

Through this program, the Summer Literacy Institute (SLI), the students became more likely to attend college and left high school feeling more prepared for it as well.

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Photo Courtesy of the Literacy Institute

Senior tutor Dorian Persaud is a student who came to MC from the Bronx. Since he didn’t receive this kind of guidance when he was in high school, it was particularly special for him to be able to guide these students through what is usually a difficult and stressful time for all kids who want to attend college, let alone those who don’t know where to start.

“In the beginning half of the week, it’s having them brainstorm and get their ideas together. The second half of the week is having them writing it and helping to put it together. Being able to give back to them is the best feeling, because in high school I didn’t have that. Having someone helping you write your essay and having a literal support system is important,” Persaud said.

He also recalls the story of one of the students who experienced success because of the SLI.

“There was a girl in my group named Kristen. She was so worried about her college essay and worried that she wouldn’t get into any schools. Her dream school was University of New Hampshire. We were constantly telling her to relax and saying, ‘you got this!’ and we found out that she did end up getting into UNH and to a few other schools too,” Persaud said.

Krystal Diaz, a senior philosophy major and tutor for the writing center, participated in the SLI this summer too. Like Persaud, she is also from the Bronx and remembers when she was in the same shoes as these high schoolers.

“I feel what they’re going through. I see myself in them, so I think it’s super cool that they’re getting to where they want to be,” she said.

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Photo Courtesy of the Literacy Institute

This process would have been much more challenging for these kids had it not been for the SLI, because some schools don’t provide college application assistance or inform students about college financing.

“Some have a little help, but some have no help at all. I had a sponsor in high school who kind of fulfilled the role for me, but I didn’t know about the actual cost of college. I didn’t even realize that I could take out loans like I am now,” Diaz said.

Throughout the educational help, Diaz also notes that the tutors developed fast friendships with the students. They all went to see a Broadway show, and most of the high schoolers were perplexed because they had never seen one.

“The college application essays were the main focus of the week, but we also had subsets of what college is like, so they could ask us whatever they wanted. We even had fun activities where we could bond with them. They posted on Facebook that it was the best week ever,” she said.

Christopher Hoey, another student tutor, had similar things to say about the program, which he felt was very eye opening for himself as well as the students he was helping.

“As a first generation college student, I know it can be hard to find the right resources that can help when applying for college and making it a reality. Therefore, I strived to be more than just a writing mentor, but a resource to them. I think we all did, and that made all the difference. I can confidently say that they left SLI much more confident for post-secondary education, and having followed up with a few of them, they’re acceptances to various colleges are making them and us extremely happy with the work we did over summer!” Hoey said.

Taylor Purcell, a senior marketing major at MC who participated in the program, admits she wasn’t sure what to expect when she went into it, but came out the other side feeling rewarded. What inspired her most was seeing how determined the students were.

“The kids really wanted help and advice. They were so driven but just needed a bit of direction, and were definitely willing to accept any form of advice. They were just really sweet in general – really great kids who were super smart and creative. One girl even did her college essay as a poem, so it was cool to see the different takes that they had because they weren’t producing generic work,” Purcell said.

She was also surprised by how excited the students were by the field trips they did in the city during the week.

“One day we took them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and most of them had never been to a museum. Seeing the way they responded to it would be surprising for most of us, because we don’t think like that, we go on trips like that all the time,” Purcell said.

Tutor Amanda Fernandes refers to the week as a “remarkable journey” since she was able to help motivate the students to further their education and move forward in a world that constantly tends to hold them back.

“They started off their college essays with a few struggling sentences. By the end of the week, not only did their essays develop into attention grabbing stories, but the students also changed, and us mentors were incredibly moved,” Fernandes said.

On top of this fulfillment, there was a unique personal growth in it for her as well.

“Their extraordinary life stories truly inspired me, made me want to work much harder, and helped me appreciate the life I am fortunate to have,” Fernandes said.

Fernandes touches on what may be the most heart-warming aspect of the SLI: both the MC tutors and the Bronx high schoolers seem to leave the program as better people than they were when they came into it.

Photo Courtesy of the Literacy Institute

This whole program actually began about six years ago, when Manhattan College partnered with Kingsbridge Heights Community Center (KHCC) and was awarded a grant through the Teagle Foundation. The grant was designed to provide college access and awareness for Bronx high school students who may not have the leverage to apply and be accepted to college.

The grant was only issued for five years. After the five years was up, there was no opportunity for Teagle to reinstate the grant. However, part of the college’s original commitment was that it would continue to run the program even after the grant ended.

This was the first year that MC ran the program independently, which was voluntarily pioneered by Marisa Passafiume, Assistant Vice President of The Center for Academic Success (CAS).

“The summer piece worked so well, and it was such an amazing thing for the community that we decided to do it on our own,” Passafiume said.

She and her staff proposed it to the administration, asking for funds to run a weeklong summer program, and it was accepted. Since recruiting had been completely left up to KHCC during their partnership, Passafiume was worried that they would have trouble getting the word out and encouraging young people to apply. What happened was very much the opposite.

“It was the first year we had over 100 applications. They flooded in, and we only had 30 spots. We just spread it by word of mouth, and it was the very first year we had a full 30 students in the program,” she said.

Passafiume reviewed the applications along with her partner on the project, Dr. David Bollert from the philosophy department, who also taught a course in the program. As for selecting the applicants, they didn’t necessarily look for the overachievers who are already bound to go to college.

“We want the student who, if given the chance, can do something great. This is an opportunity program, so we want to give a kid who maybe has never been on a college campus, maybe doesn’t know how to go about the college process, or doesn’t really think they could ever do it. Maybe they have decent grades, maybe they don’t – but we see their potential to do well, and if we just give them that little nudge, they’ll fall to our side of the fence. That’s what we’re trying to do here,” Passafiume said.

CAS also does programming for these students throughout the year, which doesn’t cost the school anything because of everyone on campus who volunteers. The student tutors would help them after school, and professors facilitated SAT prep three times per week on campus.

Photo courtesy of the Literacy Institute

Some of the professors who were a part of the SAT prep and the SLI were Dr. Cory Blad from the sociology department, Dr. Heidi Laudien from the English department, Dr. Stephen Kaplan from the religious studies department, and Dr. Michael Judge from the biology department, among others.

“We ran massive SAT prep, and then we took them to a basketball game at Fordham. We used it as a time for them to see a college campus. I bought them tickets, told them to take the train and meet us there, and we all watched the game together. They were blown away because they lived so close to Fordham but had never seen it. We walked around and peeked into buildings – it was awesome,” Passafiume said.

The high schoolers also developed a familiarity with the MC campus as well. One night when Passafiume was walking out of De La Salle, she spotted a group of them on the Quad, and when she asked them what they were doing there, they responded, “we just wanted to come hangout!”

Even after the program wrapped up, Passafiume stayed in touch with the students by sending periodic emails so they didn’t miss a step in the application process that could potentially hinder their chances of acceptance.

She explains that most of their questions are simple, for instance: “what does this mean on my FAFSA?”, and “what is a supplemental application?”, and “how do I know if this went through?”

Those barriers, despite how minor, could prevent someone from sending in something important and not being accepted.

“We have lost a few kids in the past or just never heard back from them. It’s because these kids, they move a lot, they have hard lives,” Passafiume said. However, the success rate of this program has been beyond belief, and she is especially heartened by the dedication of the tutors.

“These MC students that are doing this, they’re first generation too. These kids know what it’s like to maybe be told that they can’t really do the college thing, so they’re coming at it with a different perspective. They’re really giving back. They put their all into it. I don’t tell them to be friends with the kids and keep in touch and follow up with them, that just happened,” she said.

There’s no money to pay an administrator to facilitate the program, but Passafiume does it anyway. One of the students participating in the SLI had asked her what she gets out of it – a question that she just shrugged off. By the end of the week, she had an answer for him.

“At the end, we have a banquet for them, and they each get up and read a passage from their college essay. There were tears! We have them invite their families and everything, it’s a beautiful, beautiful night,” she said. “That is what we get out of it. One day, they’ll give it back too.”

CAS is currently seeking funds that will help the SLI to continue in the future. Hopefully this can be achieved and this remarkable program can be carried on in the years to come. What makes it remarkable is that it allows young students to create a clearer vision for their future, to discover their passions, and to realize that despite what the world has told them, their hopes and dreams are real and possible.