VAST provides tutoring, activities for middle schoolers

VAST scholars paint during their Friday afternoon activity session. The after-school program emphasizes academic activities going beyond just working on homework with tutors. / Courtesy of VAST

The “Vassar Bubble,” a well-known phenomenon on this campus, is an undeniable issue. To counteract its effects, some students seek to connect with the Poughkeepsie community by getting involved in programs that bridge the gap.

One such organization, Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST), is an after-school academic enrichment and mentoring program that works with students from Poughkeepsie Middle School. Ever since 2003, Vassar student mentors have been paired, usually one-on-one, with middle school students called VAST scholars to help them with homework and lead activities every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

While academic success is a priority for VAST, the mentors focus more on being role models and friends to their scholars. To describe the optimal relationship, VAST Coordinator Max Cordeiro ’16 explained, “[We want students to see] us as a resource and a friend, not just someone that might be on work-study that’s contractually obligated to do homework with a middle schooler.”

Mentor Chris Allen ’19 agreed: “A huge part of it is just having fun after school, like mentoring students and just being…a person who goes to college that can have an impact on their life, however small that may be. Just like being a buddy.”

VAST tries to impress upon scholars that there is so much more to academic activities than just homework and that their school environment can be enjoyable, too. Therefore, the mentors don’t place too much stress on finishing homework, realizing that after an entire day of school the students want to relax. Allen, who has worked with the program for almost two years, believes mentors should consider themselves a friend and equal rather than a teacher.

Because VAST mentors come from a diverse range of backgrounds, participants have an opportunity to inspire the scholars and to serve as proof that, regardless of circumstance, hard work pays off. VAST wants to impress upon the middle schoolers that while high school and college seem daunting, especially when the system can seem biased, success is entirely feasible. The program aims for the scholars, through connections with Vassar, to start planning for their futures.

Cordeiro commented, “At the end of each day, both scholars and mentors are rewarded with not only a better understanding of the communities around them, but also with a reinforced belief that there truly are forces of good and evil at work in the universe.” VAST’s message is one of empowerment and support, encouraging scholars to aim for high personal and academic goals.

One of the ways VAST encourages high-set goals is by connecting scholars with Vassar and the broader Poughkeepsie community. VAST organizes field trips to Poughkeepsie or to Vassar, trying to further forge a connection between the two. The program collaborates with Vassar organizations by inviting them to the middle school to interact with the students. Groups like FlyPeople and Hype have to performed at the middle school, and a new org, Vassar Urban Enrichment, is planning a mural project with VAST.

The scholars also participate in activities led and created by mentors on Fridays, a day where students have less homework. There are usually between two and four activities that range from soccer to arts and crafts to cooking. The mentors can focus on having fun with the scholars and generally enjoying the end of the week, creating an opportunity for them to further connect.

Because VAST studentsand the scholars work one-on-one, it is easier to foster a closer relationship and create a more meaningful bond during activities like these. VAST Intern Zayne Sibley ’17 commented, “The most unique thing about VAST is the one-to-one ratio between mentors and scholars. This means that every middle school scholar is paired up with a Vassar mentor. The one-on-one relationship…fosters meaningful relationships between mentors and scholars.”

Throughout the program there are constant opportunities for mentor-scholar bonding. According to VAST participant Christine Lederer ’19, the mentors go to dinner, or rather late lunch, with the scholars as soon as they arrive. This allows the middle schoolers to talk to the mentors and each other about their days, and it gives them an opportunity to decompress before starting homework. After finishing the homework, the duo can enjoy the activities. Lederer appreciates the focus on the mentor-scholar bond, adding, “[VAST] really want[s] you to develop that relationship with the scholar so that they can look to you as a role model, and they feel comfortable talking to you about the things that are going on in their lives or if they’re struggling with something. So I think that’s something that VAST emphasizes and then actually follows through on.”

The VAST program is one of three in an overarching initiative, the Vassar College Urban Education Initiative. The two other programs, Exploring College and Vassar English Language Learners Outreach Program (VELLOP), are similar in their goals and are always looking for new members. However, Lederer believes that VAST has a secret advantage, exclaiming, “Max Cordeiro’s the best boss ever!”

VAST mentors, whether participating for workstudy, fieldwork or as a volunteer, feel the benefits of the program. Allen strongly advocates for the organization, concluding, “If you’re aware of the ‘Vassar Bubble’ and you actually want to do something about it, you can go to the school that’s only five minutes away for just a few hours a day, and you can really have a positive impact on someone’s life.”

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