Exploring College helps students step out of Ivory Tower

Leila Raines/The Miscellany News.

Stepping into the brightly-lit classroom at Poughkeepsie High School (PHS), I was greeted with a set of open arms and a warm hello. After receiving a hug from Genesis Hill, PHS ’24, she invited Sara Neequaye ’26 and I to her upcoming basketball game. Honored, we delightedly agreed. This interaction was only one of the many welcomes that occur every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Exploring College (EC).

Long before stepping foot on campus, I had heard much about Vassar’s place as an ivory tower, or an institution separated from the realities of the outside world, in Poughkeepsie. According to the Census, Poughkeepsie’s household median income is $47,000, over $20,000 lower than the national household median income of $70,000. Vassar College, with its high endowment and brilliant students, certainly has a lot to offer to the local community. However, walking around the Org Fair at the beginning of the semester, I was disappointed by the lack of opportunities for me to engage with Poughkeepsie. In fact, most of campus seemed secluded in a world of its own—few clubs or organizations were interested in engendering change in the Poughkeepsie community. Searching through my emails, I found a poster that advertised opportunities to volunteer with Poughkeepsie schools. This began my journey with EC. 

EC is a program that is part of the Vassar Education Collaboration, along with Vassar After-School Tutoring (VAST) and the Vassar English Language Learner Outreach Program (VELLOP). Exploring College is particularly designed to support high school students with schoolwork and prepare them for the college admissions process and life after high school. At the introductory session, Sara Inoa ’20, the Program Manager of Exploring College, talked with students with a genuine desire to know more about us and why we chose this work-study job or volunteer opportunity. Encouraged by her attentiveness and the idea that I could support students through the arduous process of college applications that I had endured only months before, I decided to join EC. 

Three times a week, more than 15 mentors from Vassar and even more students from PHS meet from 3-5 p.m. for college essay workshops, facilitated study times and community bonding activities. Growing up in various international schools around Asia, I’d always wondered what an American suburban high school like PHS would look like. With dark blue walls, gray linoleum floors, a two-floored auditorium and a wide football field, PHS was straight out of a typical American high school movie. I was both excited and apprehensive.

My first few weeks at EC were strange. Sitting in a classroom with peers and high schoolers I didn’t know, I felt passive and useless. Seeing past mentors and PHS students excitedly chatting and discussing their summers, I sat on the side, scrolling through my emails. I felt unsure of my place and the impact I could ultimately bring: Is my volunteering just a placeholder for me to feel good about myself, to know that I’m doing something “good” for the world, even though I’m barely even interacting with the students? I was here with one goal: to help students with their college applications. But perhaps that was not the right mindset.

It wasn’t until my conversation with Hill that I realized what I needed to do. One Wednesday afternoon, Hill sat down across from me to chat with Neequaye about her upcoming basketball game. At first, I sat in silence, browsing my laptop but secretly eavesdropping—I wanted to join the conversation. Timidly, I began making comments and asking questions about her experience. To my surprise, she was delighted to talk to me and share stories with a complete stranger. There was none of the emotional distance I had expected there to be; instead, we quickly crossed the gap from acquaintance small-talk to intimate conversations. The next week, we began walking around the school in a group, having discussions about difficulties in high school, friendships and growing up. I talked about my disorienting transition from high school into college, especially as I moved far away from home. Hill opened up about the judgment she felt at school. The strong connection between mentors and students that I was so eager for was surprisingly easy once I reached out.

Advice from seasoned mentors also helped me in my journey as a mentor. Sophia Medina ’25 told me that it is usually the mentors who are afraid to approach the students, not the other way around. Taking her advice, I sat down next to one of the high school seniors because I knew he was applying to Vassar. I asked him questions about his application, his confidence with it and what he had done so far. Surprised to find that he felt lost, we set up his Common Application account together and began a brainstorm of his Personal Statement. That day, I came back to Vassar feeling unbelievably happy—I was really helping somebody with their work! During the next sessions, Taylor Frazier ’26 and I interviewed him to brainstorm ideas for his essays. I learned so much about him: He loves to sing and performs during school assembly; he is an extremely involved and respected leader in his school; he wants to be an English teacher and track coach at PHS after he graduates. I felt in awe of the sheer drive and honorable goals he had—I’ve met few people as motivated as he was in my life.

I have gained so much more from EC after I began to see the small, bright classroom where we congregate not as a space where mentors are the sole ones who transmit knowledge but as a place where we create meaningful relationships and are invested in helping each other. Inoa put it best:  “It’s so easy to feel isolated in high school,” she said. “I wanted to make sure our program takes into account how meaningful it is to know you have people to back you up, people who are coming in every week and care about you and you achieving your goals, whatever they may be, college or not.” During creative writing activities, mentors and students clap for each other as we read our poetry aloud. On Fridays, mentors and students explore Vassar campus, discussing their week while hiking on the Farm or munching on chips at the Jade Parlor. It was after I built strong friendships with PHS students that I realized what my outlook should’ve been all along: to make a friend and to support them with whatever they choose to pursue. That in and of itself is more meaningful than I could ever realize. “I feel comfortable here,” Hill said about her experience at EC. “EC is a safe place. I’ve never felt so safe, other than in my own home.”

I’d like to end on a note concerning the Vassar campus as a whole: Are we invested in building a relationship with the Poughkeepsie community? Every day, Vassar students have the opportunity to conduct their studies at an institution where professors, extremely accomplished at their respective fields, are easily accessible, in buildings that are well-maintained. It is easy to forget that we would not have gotten here without the support of our own communities. Why are we not collectively more interested in giving back? Too many students hold prejudiced ideas against the city we live in with little desire to learn more. We are too comfortable inside our bubble. 

I hope the administration and students will create more links between Vassar and the Poughkeepsie community. Instead of being complacent with our lives here, we should open our eyes and ears and try to understand the lives around us. 

 

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