BE THE CHANGE: At the clanging of the Poughkeepsie Middle School’s final bell, lockers slam as students quickly grab backpacks and books. But one group of students isn’t heading home. They’re heading back into the classroom — to meet one-on-one with Vassar’s student mentors. And, they’re thrilled about it.
Since its inception in 2006, the Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST) Program has paired as many as 80 Vassar student mentors with middle school students each semester. But now it’s more than just homework help. VAST Plus, which takes place after the mentoring sessions, engages students in everything from art and filmmaking projects to learning a new sport or taking a trip to a Vassar College museum.
“What we are doing goes beyond just helping kids get their academics up to par; it goes beyond getting them ready or calibrating their minds to aspire to college,” explains Leslie Williams, the education outreach coordinator who oversees VAST. “We play a really important role in children’s lives, inspiring them to come back year after year because this is something they want, need, and enjoy.”
Since Williams’s arrival last year, the program has nearly tripled in size, increased from three to five days a week, and provided formal training and strategy meetings for mentors to strengthen their confidence and effectiveness. The program’s approach has also changed. Instead of simply providing across-the-board help with homework assignments, VAST now assesses each student’s specific academic needs and focuses on developing those skills with student-specific feedback from highly motivated middle school teachers.
The program is wildly popular, generating waiting lists for both students and mentors. “Many students in the city of Poughkeepsie are not thriving and not graduating,” explains Williams, a former local elementary teacher. “So we changed VAST from a homework help program to an early college readiness and awareness program where we are immersing students in enrichment activities that focus on their needs, and we involve teachers and parents, too.”
This year, for the first time, Vassar staff will solely organize and lead the Plus component with activities in theater, art, athletics, and media arts. One of the biggest struggles Poughkeepsie students face is the lack of a youth center and free community programs. Now, they will have the opportunity to visit the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and Vassar’s library and special collections, and will also be encouraged to join a community rugby league.
But this is a two-way street, because Vassar students also benefit tremendously from the program. “On the first day, I was really intimidated to go into the classroom,” recalls Amanda Pesco ’10. “My student had his head down. I could tell he wanted to feel it out, see if this was someone he should let in. The next day, he started warming up to me and, like that, this friendship just took off.” Pesco also works with the student’s cousin, helping them both with math homework or playing hangman with tough-to-memorize vocabulary words. “Sometimes I feel like I learn as much from them as they do from me.”
Chris Doscher ’11 agrees. “When I first came to college, it didn’t really occur to me that I was also becoming part of a community. But being part of Poughkeepsie really gave me valuable life experience.” Doscher has mentored at the middle school since the beginning of his first year, working primarily with the same student. “We’ll exchange emails now and he’ll be so excited to see me,” he says. “Here’s a role model in college, an older person he can look up to and say, ‘This is what I want to be one day.’ That’s invaluable.”
“VAST creates such an amazing opportunity for Vassar students to become dynamically involved,” notes Williams. “They have a meaningful impact on the lives of children. With their ideas and passions, they are able to leave a legacy behind on this campus and also in the community.”