Over the past two years, I have found myself in a room full of high school students, trying to remember trigonometry (SOHCAHTOA!), explaining artificial insemination to a blushing young girl, reviewing the intricacies of cellular division, helping to research racial discrimination in Canada, using rudimentary sign language with English-language-learners, and cringing when I hear the words “Shakespeare” and “comparative essay” in the same sentence.
I have been volunteering as a tutor at Pathways to Education, Kitchener, a program offered locally through Carizon Family and Community Services. And, while it may sound like I’m spouting platitudes, every evening I go, I come away feeling that I’ve learned more from the students I was working with, than they have from me. It is the most rewarding volunteer experience I have had.
Pathways operates in eighteen locations across Canada, providing an array of supports to high school students in low-income neighbourhoods, and improving their chances for academic and life success. The website states: “The Pathways Program works within a community, alongside the local school system, to provide academic, financial, social, and one-on-one supports to address the barriers that youth can face to education.”
Now, I could try to write this post to focus on how Pathways benefits students, but it would be a little presumptuous. I can’t claim to know another person’s experience. I can, however, point you to this summary of the effectiveness of the program: 2016 Statistics. Pathways increases graduation rates in targeted neighbourhoods by an average of 85%, and has significantly increased the number of students who proceed to college or university. There are beautiful stories and testimonials that are not difficult to find online. But, I thought it might be interesting to add that the benefits extend beyond the students.
When I joined, I was considering pursuing a degree in social work, and seeking opportunities to get involved in a relevant organization to make sure it was a good fit. The volunteer coordinator suggested that I work as a tutor.
To be honest, I was intimidated at the beginning. My experiences with teenagers had pretty much ended when I ceased to be one. It was an awkward time of life for this bookish nerd, and I wouldn’t wish to revisit it myself. But, as an adult, it didn’t take long to be comfortable and the staff and other volunteers were friendly and helpful.
Pathways can be challenging on a variety of levels, both academically and socially. From trying to remember how to find the equation for a line, to editing essays about books I have never read, I find that each session presents a unique academic challenge. But, I have also been learning how to navigate more complex social issues such as social media dependence, language barriers, and apathy towards learning. I realized I didn’t have to be an expert in everything, but present an enthusiastic and open attitude towards learning and nudge the students to find their way.
In my role as a tutor, I have worked with a wide array of students. Many come from different religions, cultures, and countries which are vastly different from my own. Even the local teenage culture in itself is foreign to me by more than a couple of years. Many of the students have faced and are overcoming challenges in their own lives that I can only begin to understand. While we work together on biology labs, math problems, English essays or history assignments, we laugh together and share small pieces of our lives. In so doing, each of us improves our understanding of the world.
If you are looking for somewhere to volunteer or donate, I can highly recommend this organization. As a volunteer, I actually feel I am making a difference, and the staff and students are genuinely appreciative. And, now that I can better understand the challenges and rewards of working directly with people, I have enrolled in a Master of Social Work program. Thank you Pathways!
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