Last summer, I (Erin) had the tremendous opportunity to volunteer one weekend of my summer with College Summit, a non-profit organization dedicated to making college a reality for those students who may otherwise slip through the cracks. I learned about CS through Meghan Morgan, a college friend who works for the St. Louis affiliate of the organization, and now the proud mama of 3-week-old baby Max.
Last year, I spent that weekend in Morgantown, West Virginia, on WVU’s campus as a writing coach, someone who helps a small group of upcoming seniors prepare their “personal statement” (the snazzy “this is me” essay that accompanies the application). The writing coach leads five intense, two to three hour workshops helping students go from blank, directionless, blue-lined notebook paper to glossy, polished, “heartbeat” essay. The experience was life-changing for several reasons, partly because my exposure to such students was limited, and partly because I’d never been involved with a service organization that didn’t have a religious affiliation. I came home from the weekend hyper and energized, eager to share my experience with friends and family.
This year, I lured Ben into joining me with the promise of cooking a meal that wasn’t mac ‘n’ cheese*, listening to the entire Guided By Voices canon chronologically and at full blast**, and scraping the toe jam out of his club foot***.
Someone, please, give me a medal.
Our assignment was Glenville State College in Glenville, West Virginia, a one-stoplight town situated among lush, green mountains and not much else. It was an experience we won’t soon forget. Below are some of the highlights.
The Peer Leaders. Peer Leader is CS slang for “student,” and this group of peer leaders was top notch. They came from a variety of WV schools and backgrounds, and kudos to them for sacrificing one sweltering weekend of their summer to spend fifteen hours writing an essay and meeting with college counselors. These kids are inspiring. For confidentiality purposes, I won’t expand on the personal details of their private lives, but some of them have survived and thrived against incredible odds. They are hard-working, positive, funny, and headed in a sunny direction.
Our fellow staff. At orientation we met the fine group of people who comprised our workshop staff. There was director Lewis, a teddy bear of a man whose allergies were not suited to Appalachian climate, and head writing coach Leslie, who eased our initial fears and couldn’t for the life of her find a cell phone signal anywhere on campus. We met the college counselors: John, Kenya, Weynica and Karen. (John, I’d like to note, is a class-A badass, a fisherman and outdoorsman from Boulder who travels around in a great beast of a camper with his “four-legged blonde,” a golden retriever named Rio.) Finally, we became acquainted with our fellow writing-coaches: Andrea, Billy, Richard, Scott and John. One was a lawyer, another retired, one just out of school; except for two CS staff members, all were volunteers.
There aren’t many things more satisfying than being around a teenager the moment something clicks in his or her life. Some of these students will be first generation college students. Others have been told, by various adult figures, everything they can’t do. Some face crippling financial situations. A few said, tearfully but with a smile during the closing circle, that they’d never had so many people be their friend before.
We aren’t kidding ourselves: Four days is a miniscule little blip in anyone’s life. The real challenge lies when the peer leaders return to school and try to change a culture that’s far less encouraging. That’s where year round CS staff, in regional offices around the country, partner with school districts to continue the hard work.
The weekend was a blast for all of the reasons listed above, but it was also a blast for more modest ones. The writing coaches spent the evenings enjoying libations in two of Glenville’s fine nightlife establishments: Trezans (we debated whether it was supposed to be pronounced in a French accent), and, our favorite of the two, Good Times, which on Saturday night featured the stylings of the Bluefoot Gypsies, who played in a corner of the room next to a giant mural of Frank Zappa. We were clearly outcasts, but the locals were kind. We joked with the bartender, Angie, who seemed to take a liking to us. Some of the female patrons complimented Billy on his meticulously coiffed hair. (“Is that why you need an hour in the bathroom every morning?” John asked, since the men had to share one shower and one toilet.) A round of drinks for six cost fourteen bucks with tip. More than once we thought to ourselves, “How exactly did we end up here?” We’ve decided we could use more moments like that in our lives. We’d order another round and lean over to someone we hadn’t talked much with yet and discuss the shortcomings of some public school systems, or our diabetic pets, or our travels across the world. From there it’d disintegrate into off-color jokes, usually starting with two brothers who went off camping in the woods, and we were surprised how much the native West Virginians liked to tell the West Virginia jokes themselves. (But maybe by native West Virginians we just mean Billy.) Soon it was well past bedtime and we’d trudge back up the hill to the dorms. Thankfully they were air-conditioned, but that didn’t stop us from cracking the window and letting in a little of the cool mountain breeze overnight, as we enjoyed an all-too-brief rest before waking up the next day to do it all over again.
*I haven’t done this yet.
**This one either.
***Ben neither has toe jam or a club foot, but if he did, you bet your life I’d help a brother out.