“I used to believe one person could not change all that much,” says MIT freshman Lily Dove. “I now believe sometimes one person can make all the difference in the world.”
Twice a week, Dove and senior Makai Cartman have been making the trip from MIT to East End House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to work with elementary school children. Dove and Cartman are tutors with ReachOut, a program of the MIT Public Service Center (PSC) that matches tutors with children at local community centers to help them with homework and other activities. Their goal is to help students improve their mathematics and language arts skills and develop a love of reading and math.
It’s a 20-minute walk from Massachusetts Avenue, but it can seem like a world away and provides a break from the stresses of college life. MIT alumna Pamela Montalvo, a former ReachOut tutor who currently serves as the director of community programs at East End House, agrees. “It was nice to get off campus,” Montalvo says. “I saw it as my free time; I saw it as my extracurricular activity. It was how I relaxed. I liked to get to know the students, and I could have fun doing it.”
During the spring 2015 semester, 27 MIT students served as ReachOut tutors. Some of these tutors worked with the Cambridge Community Center, which has partnered with the PSC for years. Other tutors worked with East End House, which has only recently become a ReachOut community partner. While the MIT tutors come from different majors and class years, from freshmen to graduate students, they all share a passion for working with kids.
“The great thing about ReachOut is that you can volunteer or receive Community Service Work-Study funding if you qualify. I love knowing that we can provide a job for students that combines their desire to give back to the local community with their need to earn a little money,” says Linden McEntire, the community employment administrator at the Public Service Center. “We try to create a cohort of tutors by sending regular emails, hosting a mid-semester dinner, and giving everyone a ReachOut t-shirt, but I think they get invested because they care about the kids.”
Approximately 40-50 children from low-income families participate in the tutoring program, and East End House appreciates the presence of the PSC ReachOut tutors. “The [East End House] group leaders really had a need for homework help; the group leaders can’t help all the students on their own,” Montalvo says. “This program is filling a huge gap for us, so thank you!”
Once at East End House, ReachOut tutors work with children one-on-one or in small groups on a variety of activities. Dove and Cartman work with students on math homework and help them with reading. After that comes a little free time — a chance to read books together or play in the computer lab.
Both Dove and Cartman say the most enjoyable part of tutoring is seeing the students learn and grow. As Cartman notes, “I can remember first coming in and seeing some kids struggle with reading or with math concepts, and now that the school year is ending I have seen just how much they have learned and are feeling comfortable with their schoolwork.” From Dove’s perspective, “At the beginning of the year, I read the book 'Corduroy' to one of the first graders; just last week he read it to me perfectly. When I reminded him about how at the start of the year he was too scared to even try reading me a page, let alone a whole book, a huge smile crossed his face. That was the best payment I could ever receive for my time and effort at East End House.”
In addition to the academic help, children receive significant attention from the tutors. Cartman appreciates that it is a positive experience for the children, and that “it allows [them] to feel special [when] they have my undivided attention and someone is actually listening to what they have to say.” Dove notes, “By taking time to ask about their day and to take legitimate interest in the answer, I hope that I can make sure that each of my students knows they are very important and has interesting opinions.”
The ReachOut tutors, in turn, learn from their students, too. Both Dove and Cartman now feel that education is a two-way street. “I used to believe kids should learn from people that were older. I now believe older people can learn so much from the same kids they are trying to teach,” Cartman says.
From sharing a good book and working through math homework to enjoying free time and just having a conversation, moments like these add up to a meaningful experience for students and ReachOut tutors alike. While Pamela did not originally believe she had a big impact on the kids while she was in ReachOut, she had the unique opportunity to see them later when she joined the East End House staff and discovered the difference she had made when the kids remembered her and were excited to see her. “I didn’t realize how much it meant to them until I reconnected with the community,” she says. “You don’t see the bigger picture while you’re still in it.”