As we’ve said before, College Summit is one of the highlights of our year. CS (for it is an organization fond of abbreviations — we were WCs this past weekend in Glenville, West Virginia, under the supervision of a WCC who reported to a WD) is a national non-profit with a very simple, very laudable goal: To enable any high school student who can make it in college make it to college. CS works year-round with school districts in pursuit of this goal. In the summer, it hosts four-day workshops to give students a taste of college life (they stay in dorms); information on financial aid; one-on-one time with a college counselor to discuss schools that would be a good fit; and time to write their application essay, or — in CS jargon — “personal statement,” ideally one that “shows not tells” and identifies a student’s “heartbeat.” The last part is what we volunteered to do.
English teachers have been known to have a hard time acclimating to College Summit’s approach to writing. It begins with a ten minute free write when students (known as “peer leaders”) are given no directions aside from keeping the pen on the page. The results are inevitably a bit rambling and stream-of-consciousness, but almost always there is some germ of a story in them. That germ is what the other peer leaders help identify when free writes are read aloud. The students respond to one another by noting what phrases or images stood out and which ideas and story lines they want to hear developed further. (This is “goldmining.”) Then the process repeats: free write, goldmining. After two takes, there’s usually enough for a first draft.
The genius of this approach is that it tricks students into writing what really interests them. There is no mention of a five-paragraph, three-point essay. The message of the statement — spinning it into something appropriate for an application essay — comes last. By then, the table is already set. If students have been steered toward writing what’s interesting and unique about them, it’s a breeze tacking on a paragraph that basically says, “This is why you want someone like me at your college.”
It’s remarkable what these 17-year-olds have already lived through. Pregnancy. Abuse. Depression. Neglect. Poverty. What gives College Summit urgency — and why we believe in it so much — is that it offers students a glimpse of life without those realities. Seventeen is still incredibly young; there may be no more decisive factor in rerouting a young life than higher education.
We have broken one of the cardinal rules in that this post has been all tell, no show. So allow us to tell three stories:
1) On Saturday night there is a banquet. One of CS’s guiding principles is “celebration.” Students and volunteers alike get dressed up and have a sit down meal with the full array of silverware and cloth napkins and programs detailing the evening’s agenda. “Now which fork do I use first?” one of Ben’s students asked. “I think you use the one at the top,” someone else chimed in. “No,” a third corrected, “that’s the dessert fork. It comes last. You start on the outside and move in.” “So I want this one?” the first student asked, taking the first fork and digging into his pasta. “Well,” the third said, “ideally that’d be for the salad, but sure, you want that one.” “Hey, it works for me,” the first student said, a huge grin on his face. “I mean, I’ve never really had a meal like this. The fanciest place my family goes to eat is Shoney’s!”
2) College Student alums are encouraged to come back as volunteer peer leaders. They play maybe the most important part of the weekend: walking, talking examples of someone who made it. CS alums sit in on the writing workshop sessions, reading and critiquing essays; they fan out at meals, getting to know as many different students as possible, drawing out the shy and withdrawn; and, as much as anything, they are available. Students seek them out, talk to them, share with them in ways they might not two strange adults from Cincinnati.
On Sunday morning, during the closing circle, CS alums do something that sends a chill through us every time. Someone asks everyone in the room to close their eyes. Then one of the alums speaks, beginning, “I am …” and filling in adjectives to paint her life story. “I am potential,” one might begin, “I am hope. I am brokenness and disappointment and rape. I am a work in progress.” Then another alum speaks over top of the first. Soon all eight are talking, weaving their statements in and out of the others, crescendoing and receding as the spirit moves them. You hear their voices breaking, and you hear the sniffles around the circle. At the end, in unison, all eight say, “I am College Summit.” And you open your eyes and don’t even bother to hide your tears because there isn’t a dry eye in the room.
3) We had the pleasure this summer of working with a staffer named Morgan. Morgan was the Tech Coordinator (or TC) for our workshop. His job was to make sure the online site CSNav ran smoothly.
Morgan also shared a fondness for Bill Brasky SNL sketches. During meals, he would begin with a testimonial to Bill Brasky in a throaty, slurred voice. He concluded it with “To Bill Brasky!”, raising his glass and clinking it with everyone else at the table. None of the students were familiar with the sketches, and they found the premise absolutely hilarious. Some would try to chime in, but most just let Morgan and another CS alum do the toasting.
We were sitting at the next table when we heard the ruckus. Naturally one of us had to join in. So Ben got up, filled his drink at the fountain, and as he walked back past Morgan’s table said, “Say, are you guys talking about Bill Brasky?” Their eyes lit up. Someone else knows the joke! “We sure are!” Morgan said. “Well,” Ben said, clapping his hands around two guys and leaning into the table, “Brasky and I go way back. Once I saw him punch a hole in a cow just to see who was coming up the road!* To Bill Brasky!” Cheers and a toast. Uncontrollable giggling from one kid. Puzzled looks from the two girls at the table, perplexed by the alien sensibilities of the teenage male. The satisfaction of teaching a teenager to write and making him laugh at the same time.
If you’re interested in volunteering for a summer 2010 workshop, start here.
* = This is an actual line from one of the sketches. Ben ad-libbed one later on: “Not many people know that Bill Brasky was the inspiration for The Sound of Music. When he snores at night, it sounds like the ‘Do Re Mi’ song in perfect harmony!”