For nearly seven years, Mercer University has been a key partner in the United Way of Central Georgia’s Read United initiative. Each year, 200 Bears serve as Read2Succeed tutors to Bibb County elementary school students, helping them to improve their reading skills.
Now, a new initiative is providing a “pathway of opportunity” for Mercer students to continue their work with Read United after they graduate. In summer 2021, the United Way hired its first cohort of Mercerians to serve as site coordinators for the program.
“We figured that a pathway to work would provide students that are graduating or recent graduates some work experience as well as a way to stay connected to the work,” said Dr. Shelton Land, United Way vice president for education. “Then too, it incentivizes (students) to want to learn more and to get involved in Read United and stay committed.”
Heavenleigh Daniel, Julia Stechly and Emma Steinhaus tutored for three years as undergraduate students, and now, they are responsible for coordinating volunteers and facilitating, monitoring and supervising the tutoring. The site coordinators train and support the volunteers, fill in as substitutes when needed, run the virtual sessions, provide technical troubleshooting, and act as the point of contact between the schools and the program, said Dr. Sherri Flagg, Read United program supervisor.
“For me, this pathway opportunity is about strengthening community-university connections and retaining remarkable talent,” said Lauren Shinholster, Mercer coordinator of community engagement. “When you serve as a Read2Succed tutor, it is easy to become invested in Macon and in the futures of the Bibb County students that you support. Providing avenues to build on those investments after graduation is a testament to the energy, ideas and value that our students and community partners bring to the table.”
Steinhaus, who graduated in December 2021 with psychology and theater degrees, found tutoring as an undergraduate student to be incredibly rewarding as well as motivating. She applied to be a site coordinator so she could continue to work with kids, and she liked the schedule flexibility that the position allowed.
“I really enjoyed (tutoring) because you got to work one-on-one with the kids, and you really got to see them grow over time firsthand,” she said. “I got to assist the kids in their learning and expanding on their skills in reading.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Read United has evolved into a hybrid program. Daniel is a fully online site coordinator, working virtually with several schools at a time, while Steinhaus goes on site to Porter and Union elementary schools and Stechly to McKibben Lane and Springdale.
“You have to be a master multi-tasker,” said Daniel, a neuroscience major who graduated in May 2021. “Coming from the tutor side to the administration side has allowed me to do my job better. It has helped me to better communicate, better serve the tutors, better bridge the gaps.”
Going forward, the goal is to employ two or three site coordinators each year, Dr. Land said. As part-time staff members, they must work a minimum of 15 hours a week and can stay in the role as long as they wish. Dr. Land suspects most will serve a year or two before moving on to pursue other opportunities like their master’s degrees or work in their field.
“It’s been a great benefit to our program having those pathway-to-work individuals,” Dr. Land said. “Because they’ve been on the ground and they’ve been out there tutoring, they definitely bring a fresh perspective when they have to go behind the scenes and formulate and execute the program. They know many of our children in the schools. They know their background, and they’ve seen their growth, and they can add that knowledge to the new tutors.”
The hope is that when the site coordinators “move into the next phase of their careers or lives, they will come back and still volunteer and give to the program, so the cycle will continue moving forward as we grow as a program but also in their growth and development as individuals,” Dr. Flagg said.
Stechly, who earned her marketing degree in May 2021 and will finish her Master of Business Administration this spring, plans to eventually pursue analytics work, but she looks forward to continuing on in her Read United role as long as she can.
“I like learning the background of everything and how it was for my coordinators,” Stechly said. “It’s fun to see that side of things. I like seeing students all of the time. It’s something I’m really passionate about, helping students.”
Steinhaus said she loves the community feel that has come with working for Read United.
“I feel really supported. Everyone is super welcoming. I really enjoy seeing the students grow,” she said. “As far as the program itself, I definitely want to watch it expand at Mercer. I think it’s a great opportunity.”