Rethinking How We Make a Difference

By Kristen Kruger ’14

I am part of a movement. Many people are not even aware it exists—I certainly didn’t know about it until I arrived on Princeton’s campus my freshman year. I’m just one small player in this vast movement, but I know that my contributions matter. And even more so, I know this movement has shaped me, my aspirations, my convictions. Most of all, this is a growing movement. It is gaining significant momentum. If it succeeds, it could have enormously beneficial effects upon the outlook of the American economy. It could pave the way towards overcoming the vestiges of racial oppression in this country. It could be the full realization of American values—in particular, the tenet often held by conservatives that the United States is the land of equal opportunity, the place where hard work and big dreams are the paths to a better future.

This is the education reform movement, and it is catching fire all across this country and this campus.

I became passionate about this movement through my involvement in a relatively young tutoring program on campus, SVC imPACT (Princeton Academic Curriculum Tutoring). This program began as a homework-help tutoring project called PitSToP; however, Alex Gecker ’12 and Alex Craig ’12, its project coordinators, soon realized that homework-help was often not as effective as it needed to be. Too many students had gaping holes in their prior education that made merely walking them through their homework largely fruitless. In addition, they observed that too frequently the simple mention of “Princeton University” led the adults they worked with to implicitly trust a program that actually was not making much of a difference. Gecker and Craig sought to change this by creating a new program with rigorous standards and an innovative approach; they founded imPACT with the goal of providing students with academic tutoring that was curriculum-based and research-based, providing students with supplementary material based on classroom curriculum and using research to determine best practices in the classroom and in curriculum development. Nine months later, in the winter of my freshman year, I joined this program as a tutor, and three months later, I replaced Alex Gecker as head project coordinator. In this manner, I came to know personally the reality of a term I had not previously encountered: the achievement gap.

The achievement gap is the extreme disparity in educational quality between low socioeconomic, typically urban and minority populations and high socioeconomic, typically suburban and white populations. When I walked into the classroom in Trenton on my first day of tutoring, every single student was African-American. This deeply disturbed me. The problem was so obvious and so destructive; how was this not galvanizing the public? It seemed ludicrous that we could allow this crisis to persist while claiming that the United States is indeed a land of equal opportunity. Currently, this is only an ideal; while the achievement gap endures, it is far from a reality.

Today, two and a half years after its founding, imPACT is an education in the American public education system. It is the only Princeton University tutoring program that works directly within a public school, Monument Middle School in Trenton. Volunteers can get involved as tutors, pen pals, curriculum developers, or researchers. Not only do they volunteer their time and effort, but they also participate in weekly reflection discussions to determine how imPACT can constantly be improving and to address issues as they arise in the classroom. Last year, there were approximately thirty volunteers in the program; this year, due to an extensive campaigning effort to educate potential volunteers about the achievement gap, there are ninety volunteers involved in the program. You may have seen our promotional signs: “Why Closing the Achievement Gap is the Most Important Thing You Can Do with Your Time at Princeton.”

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about imPACT is its approach to its volunteers: when Princeton students sign up to be volunteers with imPACT, they undergo quite a lengthy and difficult process. Unfortunately, there is a great misconception on Princeton’s campus that volunteering one’s time requires such sacrifice here that no one could reasonably ask for more. But in imPACT, we do. Volunteers are required to attend multiple training sessions. They fill out applications and then undergo a selection process for the various roles.  Everyone is welcome in imPACT as long as they remain committed, but not everyone receives the role for which they apply. For instance, this year, we accepted only about 50% of the tutors who applied because of the rigor of the application process and the limited spots available. And nearly all of the potential tutors whose applications were refused this semester agreed to stay on in another capacity. At Princeton, the land where selectivity reigns supreme, I’d say that’s pretty remarkable. These volunteers attend weekly meetings and invest hours of their time working for imPACT. And when we had to inform them this fall that our entrance into the school would be delayed by a month and a half due to issues of red tape and miscommunication within the Trenton school district, we gave them a choice—should we stay in a public school, a very much underserved population, despite the serious inconveniences and delays? And the response was overwhelmingly, “Yes.”

This proves something. First of all, it proves that not all Princeton students are the money-and-power-obsessed achievement-machines that the world sometimes perceives us to be. And secondly, it reveals that, with a worthy enough cause and high enough expectations, volunteerism can be of a much higher quality than we often ever allow it to be. When we promise volunteers that the extra effort they put in for training sessions and discussion groups will make their volunteered time that much more effective, they’re all-in. They know that their contributions are making a real difference in students’ lives, and along the way, they are being exposed firsthand to one of the defining issues of our generation: the achievement gap.

Civic engagement, then, need not be the fringe extracurricular that it tends to be on this campus. Truthfully, in this arena, we have very low expectations for ourselves. Volunteerism is not something we often see as central to our Princeton experience. It’s that occasional activity we sometimes do out of a needling sense of obligation. But in reality, I can honestly say that imPACT has given me far more than I could ever give it. And that is because this program takes itself as seriously as the problems it wishes to address. It’s unreasonable to expect that band-aids are ever going to make much of a difference on the deepest wounds in society—if we’re really going to spend our time serving, let’s bring in a long-term fully-trained medical team.

That’s why I’m proud to say that I’m part of another movement, too—a movement in the Pace Center for Civic Engagement to implement high standards in our volunteer projects. I submit that, if we want to engage and serve the community, we need to do so with the gravity and dedication that these communities deserve. Here at Princeton, we certainly have the resources, the intelligence, the necessary means to do so. And thus, while it is important to want to give back and serve others, that cannot be the only motivation for Princeton students taking part in civic engagement. Whether because we’re tired or overwhelmed or simply, like all human beings, selfish, there will be plenty of times when civic engagement isn’t really something that will draw our interest. If, however, projects offer their volunteers more than just feeling good about themselves—concrete skills, comprehensive educations, chances to gain significant real-world experience, sure knowledge that the work they do has authentic, positive, and statistically-proved consequences—that would be enough to make the difference between the “gold-star-for-showing-up” attitude we often have towards service now and the “there is no better way I could be spending my time” attitude that could truly meet the needs of these communities. And to be honest, it would also give us unequaled opportunities for leadership, responsibility, compassion, competence, and yes, employability.

Just imagine, for a moment, that Princeton University, one of the top-ranked universities in the world, had almost 100% student involvement in civic engagement and extremely rigorous and high standards for doing so; that the students involved in these projects were learning the realities of the problems American society faces and the concrete skills to join with these communities and work towards constructive solutions; that they were combining high intelligence, unparalleled classroom knowledge, and a deep hunger to be challenged with real-world experience, familiarized empathy, and practical abilities to confront the heavy burdens weighing upon those outside the orange bubble.

Tell me that wouldn’t change the world.

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