There’s a stereotype about the Trenton school system that at least one student from the district is tired of hearing.
“We have a lot to offer,” proclaims KaShauna Whetstone about students at Trenton’s Medical Arts Learning Community, a curricular division of Trenton Central High School (TCHS). “So to whoever said nothing good’s coming out of Trenton—we’re the good part that’s coming out.”
Whetstone is one of 20 TCHS juniors participating in Bridge to Employment (BTE), a selective, three-year tutoring and career-orienting program funded by Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and co-run by TCNJ’s Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement. BTE was launched at TCHS in 2008 to guide district students to higher education and future careers via weekly tutoring, professional mentoring, exam preparation, and internships.
So far, the multifaceted program is a hit amongst its participants, and all signs suggest that this has a lot to do with the once-a-week tutoring sessions run by students from TCNJ’s Bonner Center.
Every Tuesday afternoon, a team of Bonner Community Scholars and student volunteers led by coordinator Morgan Reil ’08 meet with their high school counterparts for several hours of relaxed tutoring and exam prep. Open Options major Ryan Pilarski ’13 describes these gatherings as a sort of “homework club”—a social safe-haven where students receive the help they need when they hit a snag in their studies.
Upon arriving at TCHS one day this past semester, the tutors from TCNJ were greeted with hugs and smiles before the two student groups set about that afternoon’s activities, mixing informalities with intensive course review and homework assistance.
Dan Lee ’12, a Math/Science/Technology and elementary education double major, is known as the go-to tutor for students with math questions. That day he was reviewing geometric theorems with several BTE students.
“When it comes to formulas and stuff my mind is … somewhere else,” TCHS student Sydney Williams says, “but Dan helps me out with that.” Both Williams and classmate Nikki Hewitt attest that they’ve seen an improvement in their grades as a result of their after-school studies.
Though BTE is geared toward so-called STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Medicine) learning, Bonner tutors offer their specialties wherever needed. For instance, Pilarski spent the afternoon discussing Cold War history with a BTE student—elucidating key terms like witch hunt and fallout shelter—while another Bonner volunteer read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five with several other high-schoolers.
Between the tutoring, exam preparation, and SAT help, BTE covers all the bases. Yet the resources that BTE affords its participants run deeper than the conventional academic help. At the heart of BTE are the personal ties that develop between the students and their TCNJ mentors, who are at most only a few years older.
“So many high school students…don’t see what college students actually go through,” explains TCHS English teacher and faculty supervisor Rebecca Schwartz. “It’s that lofty, ‘Yeah, I want to go to college!’ But they’ve never actually talked to people who are in college, and they’ve never really seen that side of it.”
The age gap between TCNJ tutors and BTE students is optimal: the tutors are young enough to remember high school but old enough to be able to shed light on that ambiguous gap between secondary and higher education. Both TCNJ and TCHS acknowledge the benefits.
“Sometimes you have the idea that when you go to college you’re going to change, [and] it’s not going to be fun,” Whetstone says. “But [TCNJ students] coming here show you that you still have fun, you still have personality.”
Psychology major Kaitlyn Nichols-O’Neil ’13 says that while some Bonner Scholars volunteer to tutor, she was assigned to BTE. “It has really opened my eyes,” she explains. “[Tutoring is] a different experience when you’re working with kids who are around your age.”
“You’re almost revisiting and seeing the same frustrations that you faced in high school,” Natasha Balani ’11, biology and psychology double major, adds.
Finance major Tariq Shabazz ’10, who grew up in Trenton and attended public schools in the district through eighth grade, aspires to set an example for the TCHS students. “I wanted to come back and help. I wanted to share my experiences with these students,” he explains. “I’m sort of like that portrait…they can look at and say, ‘I want to do those same things and I want to give back.’”
Shabazz, Balani, and economics major Tamara Ibezim ’11 have been tutoring at TCHS since before the current program was initiated. Each says they have made meaningful connections in the process.
Shabazz spoke of his friendship with BTE participant Dan McMorris: “He feels he can talk to me about anything, so he texts me, or he may call me just to see how I’m doing.”
“I think it’s definitely a different experience when you’re tutoring someone versus … [performing] other sorts of service,” Ibezim explains. “You see that progression…. You might not see instant results, but I think the end benefit is what makes the work that you do so gratifying.”
The group dynamic that defines the tutoring sessions extends beyond these weekly routines. BTE allows students to partake in a number of extraordinary activities outside the classroom. Earlier this year a group of BTE students attended Liberty Science Center’s “Cardiac Classroom,” where they observed a live heart surgery and conversed with the surgeons throughout the procedure. There is an annual trip to the Princeton-Blairstown Center, where the students take part in team-building activities. This summer, many of the BTE students will again enroll in the weeklong Summer Institute, during which they reside in TCNJ dorms, meet TCNJ students and professors, perform community service, and participate in health care–related workshops, science experiments, and social activities. Monique Nazario says last summer’s program was “the bomb.”
“We cultured worms … something I would never do,” she explains.
Between the summer program and other visits to the campus, BTE students have gotten pretty familiar with the College.
“We know TCNJ like the back of our hands,” Williams says.
When asked where they plan on going after high school, many say they hope to attend TCNJ.
“It’s great to know that [the] students are interested in a great college that is close to home, accessible, and affordable,” says Schwartz.
Beyond the hands-on learning these TCHS students get at the College, a number of them have received hands-on work experience through BTE’s professional internships with Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a J&J subsidiary. They completed paid internships in subfields such as sales and marketing, research, and customer relations thanks to their participation in BTE.
J&J plays a productive role in the classroom as well. Its 15 corporate mentors visit the BTE students once a month and lead small-group activities, including college searches and discussions about character and individuality.
One of them, Felicia D’Oria ’93, has been mentoring at TCHS since November 2009, and said she welcomes the chance to help the students. “I’ve learned through working for Johnson & Johnson that it is very important to give back to the communities in which we live,” she says, “and I think this is a great way to go out and show young people that there are so many opportunities out in the world for them.”
The opportunity to be a part of something special is what first attracted TCHS student Denzel Poole to BTE. A latecomer to the program, Poole says that during his sophomore year, a friend told him about the opportunities BTE opens up for participants. “I wasn’t ‘in’ anything, but I wanted to be a part of something,” Poole remembers. This past October, the TCHS junior approached Schwartz and inquired about joining the program. He has attended every weekly tutoring session since.
Poole, a self-described “quiet type,” says he plans to become a pediatrician after college. While he realizes the academic resources that BTE affords him will serve him well as he charts his path toward college, medical school, and a career, it’s the inclusive, group-focused dynamic of BTE that keeps him coming back.
“I feel like I can fit in here,” he explains.
That dynamic is not only BTE’s most visible virtue, it’s one of the best reasons this class of future scholars has to gather every week with their TCNJ counterparts to buckle down and study. In the process they’re not only building bridges to successful careers, they’re also shattering a few stereotypes along the way.