Connect: College Access Tutors, an organization founded by Julian Jacobs ’19 and Abel Girma ’18, has partnered with Providence Public School District to offer free college essay tutoring to its students.
The organization has 87 registered volunteers, more than half of which are Brown graduates, and provides remote college essay tutoring for students in six Providence public schools. The services depend on student needs, ranging from pre-submission edits to extensive guidance through the writing process.
Jacobs was motivated to found the organization after years of research he conducted on inequality, he said. In his view, students from low-income backgrounds face great disadvantages in the college admissions process, partly because they do not have access to the “private-schools-to-elite-institutions pipeline” and the “multimillion-dollar industry” of college essay tutoring.
It is a “tragic irony” that a college degree, so often regarded as a “gateway into a decent, middle-class living,” has become unobtainable for those hoping to enter the middle-class, Jacobs said.
Girma, a first-generation college student, echoed Jacobs’ sentiment. He said that his experiences at Brown were an “eye-opener” to the inequities existing in higher education. “For a lot of people, going to a place like Brown was sort of a birthright, whether through legacy admissions or other networks in their immediate circles,” he said.
Accessible college essay tutoring services are only “Band-Aids” in the fight against educational inequity, Girma said, “but they are effective … and can be ways to change the odds for actual people.”
Girma said that the organization chose to start its work in Providence because he and his peers had benefited from the Providence community during their time at Brown, but felt they had not given back enough in return. “Our initiative is a way to pay it forward,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the challenges faced by low-income students in Providence, according to Girma. “Connect Tutors (has) opened my eyes to what it looks like on the ground,” he said, citing examples of families hit by unemployment, children facing homelessness and students losing contact with their incarcerated parents.
For Jacobs, the role of Connect is to provide disadvantaged Providence students with assistance in determining “what story they want to tell” to colleges in their essays and making sure that the story is reflective of their identity.
To that end, Jacobs and Girma recruited tutors from their immediate social network. Potential tutors submit an application form explaining their interest in the organization and relevant experience, and then undergo five to six hours of tutoring and writing training once selected, Jacobs said.
“It’s not just (about) finding the best writer, but about finding the people who would be most dedicated to the process,” Girma said.
One important feature of Connect’s tutoring model, according to Girma, is its student-driven structure. In the first tutoring session, the student fills out an individualized success plan, specifying when and how often they want to meet, where they are in the writing process and the areas they want to focus on.
Citing Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Girma said that the inherent power dynamic of teacher and student relationships can often leave students feeling disempowered. “We are very intentional about how we can (make the tutoring process) as much student-led and student-empowering as we can,” he said.
Connect’s model is also entirely remote. “We are always going to be remote, regardless of the pandemic,” which allows Connect to bring in student volunteers from outside of Providence, Jacobs said.
In the coming years, Jacobs and Girma plan to expand the organization geographically. Girma said that the next step for Connect is to expand to other parts of Rhode Island and the Boston metro area by creating partnerships with school districts like PPSD.
They also plan to provide more long-term services to students in earlier stages of the college search process. “As we gear up for the spring, we are working to onboard as many (high school) juniors as possible,” Jacobs said.
For these juniors, the focus of Connect’s services will no longer be on college essay tutoring, but on helping them understand “what colleges are looking for” and encouraging them to think about their personal narrative, Girma said.
Ultimately, Jacobs said he is optimistic that Connect’s tutoring model is “easy to repeat,” as it rests on the notion of bringing together students who have been through the college application process with students who are currently in that process.
Jacobs noted that the simplicity of the Connect tutoring model is a reason for why it should be done on a larger scale.
“Whether it is through us or any other organizations,” Jacobs said, “we hope this is something that more regions begin to do.”