November 2, 2011

Volunteer program aims to bolster interest in post-secondary education

Though Galesburg youth live minutes away from college campuses, to some the journey to higher education can seem nearly impossible.

This fall, a new cooperative volunteer program between the Galesburg Public Library (GPL) and local schools is looking to change all that.

The program, “Mobile Book Discussion,” is funded by Knox’s “Destination College” grant, which was bolstered by a $75,000 contribution from the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) last February. The grant is aimed at cultivating student interest in post-secondary education in Galesburg schools.

“The idea behind [Mobile Book Discussion] is to motivate children to read,” Coordinator of the Center for Community Service Kathleen Ridlon said, “and in doing that, the larger picture is for the students to perhaps express some interest or desire in going to college.”

The semester-long cooperative program, the first between the GPL and Knox, brings together student volunteers from local colleges (Knox, Monmouth College and Carl Sandburg College) and student participants from Galesburg-area middle and high schools for one book discussion every term.

The literature, which is given to all program participants at the beginning of the term, consists of a “relatable narrative” which conveys themes that “normalize and celebrate the experience of striving for higher education.” This term’s novels are “Recovery Road” by Blake Nelson for high school and “Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer” by John Grisham for middle school.

Melinda Jones-Rhodes, GPL’s Young Adult Librarian who spearheaded the program, said that the program was based on the needs of the schools and created in “complete collaboration with the [Galesburg] school librarians.”

“They thought that this was something their kids would respond to,” she said.

With 50 high school and 40 middle school participants this term, they were right. Responses have also faired well from volunteers as well, particularly from Knox.

“The Knox response was fantastic; we got way more volunteers trying to sign up for the program than we could accommodate,” she said. “I probably have 20 people that I said no to.”

Rhodes pointed out the importance of college students being present at the discussion to dispel myths about what college students are like, and “to be another relatable face that the kids can see.” Specifically for middle school students, there will be time reserved at the end of the discussion to ask the volunteers about college life.

Freshman Anna Karwowska, who will be participating in the discussion at Lombard Middle School next week, thought that the early approach of the program is especially beneficial.

“It was started to get kids excited about … following their dreams in general,” she said. “I think getting that kind of motivation in middle school is nice because then it’s like … ‘keep in mind what you enjoy.’”

An aspiring teacher and the founder of a book club in high school, Karwowska joined the program largely because of her own middle school and high school experience.

“I interned with one of my most influential teachers in middle school … I want to do what she did for me, which is inspire kids to write and inspire them to read and understand,” she said.

Freshman Bruce Kovanen was motivated to join the high school program in part by his Work Study experience teaching a GED class at the Adult Learning Center in the Carl Sandburg Mall. He teaches a wide range of people there, from a 16-year-old dropout to a 55-year-old father.

“I see some of the kids who go [to the GED class] and they really struggle sometimes, and I think high school would have really helped them a lot,” he said. “[The program] was a good way to get involved in a way I wanted to get involved.”

Kovanen and Karwowska, along with the eight other local college volunteers, begin the discussions at various times next week. By mid-November, the program will be finished for the term. However, Rhodes and Ridlon hope to be able to continue financing the program in coming terms.

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