As I shared in my April 23 column, a video about the Ninde Scholars Program was selected as the winner of First Lady Michelle Obama’s national Near-Peer Mentoring Challenge and is the reason Mrs. Obama will address the Class of 2015 at its Commencement ceremony.
As Commencement and Mrs. Obama’s visit draw closer, I’ve been curious to learn more about the program that garnered us such a tremendous honor. So I reached out to two individuals who could give all the details: Susan Pavlus, director of education outreach programs and assistant director for the Bonner Center for Service and Learning (BCSL), and Katie Hayes, Ninde Scholars Program college access coordinator. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Marvin Krislov (MK)
Let’s begin with an overview of the Ninde Scholars Program.
Susan Pavlus (SP)
The Ninde Scholars Program is a program here in Oberlin in which we provide a variety of college access services. We have an office at Oberlin High School, which includes Katie Hayes, our college access coordinator, and Karen Reynolds, our Serve Ohio AmeriCorps college guide. My office is here at Oberlin College.
We provide services for students in a variety of ways. We have capacity for 44 Ninde Scholars in grades 7-12; currently we are serving 40. We have 22 Oberlin College tutors who work with the program, five of whom are called content tutors, who provide content and tutoring in math, physics, chemistry, French, and Spanish to any Oberlin High School student. Ninde Scholars receive at least an hour of tutoring each week from their Oberlin College tutor.
We also provide opportunities for college tours and college access workshops, and these are open to all Oberlin High School students. We process all the scholarship applications for Oberlin High School; there are approximately 170 this academic year.
Do you work during the summers as well as the school year?
Yes. We provide summer programming for all of our Ninde Scholars. The 7th- through 10th-graders have an “Aspiring Ninde” three-and-a-half-week summer program that takes place each afternoon here on campus. The 11th- and 12th graders—and this program is open to all 11th- and 12th-graders at Oberlin High School—participate in a writing program for two weeks in the mornings at Mudd library. And we also have a summer bridge program for our graduating seniors in which we support them as they get ready to go off to college.
Can you tell me a bit about the history of the Ninde program and how it got started?
Katie Hayes (KH)
The Ninde program is a collaborative, so we have several partners. The Oberlin City School District is one of our partners, as is Oberlin College, the Community Foundation of Lorain County, and the Urban League of Lorain County.
One of the strengths of the Ninde Program is that it was a community-driven program that was created in response to a community-expressed need. Members of our community believed there were not enough opportunities for our young people to apply to and succeed in college. Dick and Nan Ninde, a couple living at Kendal at Oberlin, were made aware of these challenges and wanted to do something about it, so they offered a matching grant. Four hundred donors—community members, Kendal residents, former school teachers, and people currently involved in the Oberlin city school district—then came together and raised these funds.
The Nindes gave generously to the program, hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think the smallest donation was just $2.30, or something like that. Everyone gave what they could, because everybody saw that there was a need and the program was designed to serve everybody. All in all, they raised about $1 million, which became our endowment. Part of our budget each year comes from the interest generated by that endowment.
There are strong ties to the writing associates program here at the College, and Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and English Anne Trubek had a lot to do with forming the Ninde program in its original form.
We have evolved in a lot of ways over the years. We are currently housed in the Bonner Center for Service and Learning (BCSL), and that is a real strength for us too because it allows us to recruit a lot of Bonner Scholars who come to us already interested in civic engagement.
It sounds like a lot of people came together to launch the Ninde Scholars program and continue to support it today. What makes the Ninde program different from other college access programs?
One of the greatest strengths of the program is our unique access to Oberlin College students, and the opportunities for them to work in near-peer relationships with our high school students and even our middle school students. We have a variety of tutors who come from a variety of backgrounds. Our Ninde Scholars benefit from the personal support and assistance with things like how to look for, choose, and enroll in a college, apply for scholarships, and prepare for the ACT.
Katie is recognized in the high school as a member of the high school staff, and she also is recognized here at the college as part of the college staff, so it’s a seamless relationship. We are able to do so much more because of the help of the Serve Ohio AmeriCorps college guide, Karen Reynolds, who is a full time employee supporting all the students at Oberlin High School.
This type of effort is part of the national conversation, and that’s of course one of the reasons why First Lady Michelle Obama is recognizing us. What do you think the biggest challenges are for the Ninde Scholars?
Finding schools that are the right fit—we all know how important that is. We try to coach our students through that process. But that also means the right financial fit, and unfortunately the financial aid climate in our country is so challenging right now. I feel really lucky to be associated with Oberlin College because we’re a school that meets full need. But I see financial aid packages from colleges across the country that come across my desk, and there is a staggering amount of unmet financial need and gap in general that our students are having to deal with. That is probably the number one challenge that they are facing.
You mentioned that you are serving 40 students right now in grades 7-12. What about other students in the Oberlin City school district that may not be participants in the Ninde Scholars program?
We have a variety of services that we call our “open access services,” and they are available to the entire Oberlin High School. One area of focus is content tutoring. Our tutors spend time with the teachers so they know what content is coming up and how to best support the students.
We also offer six college access workshops per year, including a college essay night and a FAFSA information session for families. The Ninde college access office also helps process FAFSAs directly; we supported 43 out of 81 families of OHS seniors this year in filing their FAFSA.
We also hosted a summer job expo this past spring and had more than 60 jobs available for students in the Oberlin community through the City of Oberlin, Oberlin Community Services, Kendal, and other employers.
The Ninde Program also provides access to a professional ACT preparation course. The program covers the cost of the course for our 11th-grade scholars, but it’s open to all Oberlin High School juniors for a fee. We provide about seven college tours per year, which any Oberlin High School junior and senior can attend. These take place during the academic day. We also have an enrollment trip coming up this week for our students who are choosing to go to Lorain County Community College (LCCC). We’ll take them through their whole orientation and enrollment process at LCCC.
Our office coordinates all financial aid and scholarship applications for all of Oberlin High School seniors, not just for our Ninde Scholars. Our door is open to any student who needs help, and we form many close connections with these students. It’s a very rewarding part of the program to be able to help everybody.
I’ve been to a number of national meetings about affordability and access, and one of the primary agenda items is making the FAFSA more easily understood. It’s really a great service that you’re providing because this is a barrier that we hear about regularly. Do you provide services to anyone outside of the city of Oberlin, such as Wellington, Lorain or Elyria?
When the original money was raised for the Ninde endowment, they were very particular about wanting to keep the program focused on Oberlin. But we do continue to provide services to Ninde alums who have graduated and moved away from the area.
And every once in a while I get a student who says, “Hey, my best friend’s in Lorain, and they need help with this stuff too. Can you help them file something?” and we do help them.
Can you talk a little bit about how the Ninde program has taken advantage of its connection with Oberlin College’s faculty, buildings, and facilities to enhance the programming you provide?
Yes, absolutely. We often bring our Ninde students onto campus for different events. For instance, we bring them to Stevenson Dining Hall once a year for a wonderful event called Ninde Family Dinner, which always includes a speaker from Oberlin College. This year we had Afia Ofori-Mensa come and she gave a lovely talk. Last year, Tony Richardson from the admissions office came and greeted students. I think you were actually the speaker one year?
We also do an annual bowling event here on campus. In the summertime, you will frequently see us playing kickball or capture the flag in Wilder Bowl with our aspiring scholars as part of their summer enrichment camp.
Another thing that happens—and I think it’s a really lovely thing and part of why we’re receiving this recognition from the First Lady—is that our tutors often bring our scholars to campus events, where they then start to make connections with faculty and other resources.
As one example, Morgan Smith, who is the Ninde scholar featured in the Near-Peer Mentoring Challenge video, has a great relationship with her tutor, Amethyst Carey. Amethyst’s advisor is Greggor Mattson, who is a professor in the sociology department and is a good friend to Ninde. He has volunteered to help, particularly with our college essay workshops.
This fall, I was in my office and Morgan came in and I said, “Hey, we need to get to work on your college essay,” and she said, “Oh, I already have a draft for you to review.” It was outstanding. I asked if she and Amethyst had worked on it together and she said “No, Greggor and I met, and he helped me with it.” I asked how she’d met Greggor, and she said, “He is Amethyst’s advisor, and I met him through Amethyst and Ninde. I ran into him as I was working at Ben Franklin, and we made an appointment to meet up at Slow Train, and he just offered to help.” That often happens.
Our Ninde scholars make connections with many different people. We do a session on the dos and don’ts of working with professors, and we bring in Oberlin College professors to help them with that. This year, Donna Russell and Tania Boster came in to help prep students on how to prepare to get a work study job once they get to campus.
These connections are something that can be hard to measure in numbers, but they are definitely one of the big impacts of the program.
That’s great! Thank you. What questions do you have for me?
What importance do you see in Oberlin College students engaging with the community of Oberlin? How do you encourage students to get outside the bubble and become involved in the Oberlin community? And how could this tie into the current strategic planning process?
One of the things I like to mention is the fact that Oberlin College and the city of Oberlin were founded by the same people in the same year. Town and gown are inextricably linked, both geographically and emotionally. One of the advantages of coming to Oberlin is that you have an opportunity to interact with a community that is very rich in its history and also a very interesting and compelling place to live. Through places like the Bonner Center, there are a lot of opportunities to get involved, and because of the geography of our town, it’s really quite easy to walk or bike to the community. That’s not true on all college or university campuses.
I think there are many, many opportunities in courses and formal work to become engaged with the community. For instance, in my public education class, we often talk about the Oberlin public school system and study its organization and challenges.
I’m really proud of the fact that 63 percent of our students participate in some sort of community service. We calculate that they contribute more than 100,000 hours per year, whether it’s through places like the Oberlin Early Childhood Center, Oberlin Community Services, or the Oberlin Heritage Center. There are a myriad of examples. This summer, we’ve launched a program to increase the number of students staying here and working in the community, in government or social services. I think it’s a great opportunity for students and staff and faculty as well.
What do you think the college should do to promote the collaborative projects that it has so that both town and college interests are both put forward?
We’re doing a lot, but I believe we can still do more to make sure people understand what opportunities exist and what things are happening. For instance, the Robinson Scholars program is very visible to people in the high school, but I don’t know if people throughout the community know about it. The Oberlin Project includes the college, city, and schools, and I don’t know if everyone fully appreciates all the opportunities it presents, whether it’s conservation or local food or other sustainability initiatives. My sense is that there are so many ways in which students and parents in the schools can take advantage of what the college has to offer, for virtually no cost in most instances, but we need to look at other ways to tell these stories, to make them more visible, and to make it clear what we do offer, and then to make sure that people can access those opportunities.
How can we be more proactive in enabling students at Oberlin High School to gain access to the resources of Oberlin College?
I think you all do a great service because you are actually in the schools, and that’s probably most important. But I think about everything else we have going—initiatives at the Apollo, the opportunity to take college classes for free, all the lectures and concerts and museum events, and so forth—and I think that bringing people onto campus is important too.
A program like the Ninde Scholars does a great service. It’s wonderful that we are now helping the students as early as the 7th grade, helping them feel comfortable being on a college campus. It is also important to encourage students and their parents to look at our website to see all the things that are going on here. The sports events are free, the concerts are mostly free, the art museum is free—it’s all high quality stuff and it’s right down the street. There are very few places in America that have such an amazing array of activities that are all free and easily accessible.
So we thank you for everything that you’re doing with the students and the families in our community, and for helping to get the message out about all the things of which students and faculty can take advantage.
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