By: Hunt Holman
Like so many things, College Essay Mentoring Project (CEMP) looks different this Spring. CEMP pairs community volunteers with public high school students around the Portland area to punch up their college application essays. Typically, volunteers converge on a high school campus to meet with students in the library. More recently, students have also had the chance to take a field trip to the workplace of one of our community partners to review essays with employee volunteers over lunch.
With the onset of COVID-19, of course, both those options were off the table. CEMP had to adapt to new circumstances, in a big hurry. To add a wrinkle, it was not so simple to recreate the person-to-person interaction that forms the bedrock of CEMP. At first we thought, we’ll just set up everyone in breakout rooms on Zoom, right? Not so fast. We discovered that each school district has its own policies around video-conference software.
For example, one district uses Zoom, but another district has banned it outright. One of the largest blocs of our volunteers hails from an institution that uses Zoom—but behind a login screen—so you can’t access it without their domain name in your email address.
We also had to ensure equitable access for students, not just to technology but also to time. Many students have taken on additional responsibilities for work or childcare in their homes, and may not be available to meet during conventional school times.
Finally, there were varying comfort levels with technology among our volunteers. We quickly discovered that bringing students and volunteers together digitally would not be the simple one-to-one transfer that we hoped.
With the help of our indispensable community partners, we developed a model that allows for a meaningful exchange of feedback, centers student equity, and complies with school district policies. Youth Programs distributed student essay drafts to volunteers via a ubiquitous online document-sharing service. Volunteers added their suggestions as comments in the documents. In many cases, they also recorded a brief video to share with students. Literary Arts shared out the marked up essays and videos with teachers, for distribution back to the students.
The value of CEMP has always been the face-to-face interaction between students and volunteers. It is exciting to be in those workplaces, or walk around those campus libraries, and feel the empathy and engagement a volunteer brings to their student, when they review that student’s essay. This Spring, even though we couldn’t meet in person, our volunteers still delivered.