Volunteers in a U of G tutoring program say their reward is helping a local high school student master a difficult subject.

At 21 years old, he was in high school, struggling with English as a second language. This past spring, the Guelph-area student faced a new challenge: the Grade 10 literacy test. That’s when he and another ESL high schooler were assigned to work with U of G student Brittany Walbourne.

Walbourne was among some 30 U of G volunteers who joined a tutoring program begun last winter at the Bookshelf in downtown Guelph. Those first sessions attracted about 50 local high school students.

This semester, about 20 U of G students, staff and faculty are working with an equal number of secondary students from four area schools. Run by Prof. Susan Chuang, Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, the program sees tutors meet with students for hourly sessions, typically twice a week, at the Bookshelf.

That’s where Walbourne, now in her fourth year of child, youth and family studies, met her ESL learner.

“For one semester, I focused on prepping him to write the Grade 10 literacy test,” she says. “Each week I developed activities that worked on reading and writing skills, such as answering questions about a story and writing short and long essays, to help prepare him for the literacy test.”

The result?

“This summer, I found out he passed the test.”

Helping local teens – and providing volunteer opportunities for U of G members – is the goal for Chuang. Last fall, she visited local high schools to promote the new program to teachers and guidance counsellors. Students from four high schools took part. The most sought-after subjects are math and languages, says Chuang, although she adds that tutors are needed in many subjects.

The program ran through the summer, when student Miles Bies oversaw some sessions as program manager. The fall session ends this week, but the program will resume in early 2013. The Bookshelf donates space and local businesses have provided supplies and advertising.

“We’re always looking for tutors,” says Chuang. She emphasizes that the program is not a drop-in or homework club. Students and tutors sign a “contract,” and a student who misses two sessions must withdraw from the program. About half of the tutors are U of G students.

Diane Kishi, a master’s student in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, was looking for a way to get involved in the community without becoming overburdened. She called upon earlier tutoring experience when she joined the Guelph program. One of her students last year scored 82 per cent in Grade 11 biology and returned this fall for help with Grade 12 chemistry.

Says Kishi: “It’s very satisfying for me to help a student understand a topic and to see them suddenly light up as everything becomes clear. I enjoy these subjects and hope that the students I tutor learn to enjoy them as well.

“The high school students are able to get a better understanding of the topics when they’re given one-on-one attention, and are thus able to perform better on tests.”

She says her experience helps her hone communication and teaching skills – useful both for her TA duties back on campus and, she figures, for her working CV.

Geography master’s student Kimberley Stemshorn served as a Grade 10 math tutor twice a week last winter. She liked helping out and getting to know local high schools and community members – not to mention “refreshing my math skills,” she says.

Few volunteer tutors are planning to become school teachers, says Chuang. “As in any volunteering, it’s that personal satisfaction. They do it because they want to help kids.”

The program grew out of Chuang’s discussions with Guelph illustrator Nick Craine about Guelph Community Initiatives, a larger proposed community centre project for teens downtown.

Helping teens keep up their marks will also help them keep their options open, including post-secondary education, says Chuang. That’s especially important for kids from immigrant families – a research focus for the Guelph professor.

She is a key organizer for an annual conference on immigrant experiences called On New Shores. This year’s event – themed “Social Support and Capital: Happiness in Immigrant Families” – was held at Ryerson University in October.

Chuang has also worked with the City of Guelph to survey area immigrants and has edited two volumes about immigrant parents and children. She is now writing a book about parenting.

She grew up in Brampton; her father, a doctor, was the first generation of the family to leave Taiwan.

For more information about the Bookshelf’s tutoring program, contact schuang@uoguelph.ca.