by David Karas
Look out, Bruce. Some new, young competition has rolled into town.
In honor of the Jersey-born rock-and-roller Bruce Springsteen, close to 30 first-year TCNJ students spent two days in November touring Freehold and Asbury Park visiting sites made famous in Springsteen’s lyrics and celebrating his legacy.
They spent a morning volunteering at the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, reflecting Springsteen’s passion for the issue of hunger, and they concluded the experience by leading a poetry and songwriting workshop with Trenton elementary- and high-schoolers, just footsteps from the famous Asbury boardwalk.
The TCNJ students were part of a First Seminar Program (FSP) class, Springsteen’s Lyrics as Literature, which was one of many specifically designed for incoming freshmen. Throughout the semester, the students studied “The Boss” and his works in preparation for the trip, which included an overnight stay at the oceanfront in Asbury Park.
“Our job is to work with professors to connect teaching objectives of the course to a real project that also benefits the community,” said Patrick Donohue, director of the Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement at TCNJ. The center works to connect the campus community to the needs of the surrounding community, facilitating volunteer opportunities for students, faculty, and staff. Part of this entails working with a number of FSP courses, such as the Spingsteen class, to provide enrichment activities for students that include a service component.
Donohue described this project as the program’s first “immersion weekend,” and he said one goal was to help the freshmen gain “a little better insight into Springsteen as the person (and) the artist.”
The younger “Jersey Girl(s)” and boys came from Hedgepeth-Williams Elementary School and the Academic Sports Academy run by former NBA player and TCNJ alumnus Greg Grant ’89, a Trenton native who runs the year-round after-school program that combines athletics and academics. Two high school students, who have been in Grant’s program for upwards of five years, also came along for the trip.
In preparation for the writing workshop, the TCNJ students brought along their favorite Springsteen lyrics, and the younger students brought lyrics from their favorite songs, regardless of the artist or genre. Together, small teams analyzed the literary and poetic components of their selections and worked to create a song or poem of their own to present to the entire group.
“We want(ed) to inspire them to see themselves as writers and to further develop their academic skills,” said Donohue.
From a poem about spending time on the beach to an alternative version of Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” the groups shared a range of works that surely would have impressed Springsteen.
For 10th-grader Lonnell Jones, age 15, the workshop was the highlight of the trip. “I learned how to write a song,” he said.
Richard Henries, age 12, seemed to concur. “I like to sing a lot,” he said after delivering an impressive rendition of his group’s creation. The seventh-grader, all smiles, said the trip made him want to go to college.
Albert Matlock ’12, a Bonner Community Scholar who was helping at the workshop, said another primary goal of such programs is to spark an interest in college within young, inner-city students. “I felt it was a great outlet for the kids to get out of their normal scene,” he said. “I feel like we can help encourage them.”
Carolyn Tonic-Robinson, a guidance counselor at Hedgepeth-Williams, went along with her students for the day. “Overall, the relationship that … The College of New Jersey students [have with the elementary school students] is wonderful for them,” she said. “They have a few laughs, and there are serious moments as well.”
Bonner Community Scholar and Trenton Central High School graduate Bisi Okoya ’12 said the trip was a great opportunity for the younger students. “I think most of them are just happy to get out of Trenton,” she said. “They usually don’t.”
For the first-year TCNJ students, the weekend seemed to be a success. “It was such an amazing experience to work with the kids so closely and for so long,” said Devin Dimmig ’14, a history and
secondary education major. She is planning to be a teacher, and said the experience increased her passion for working with children.
The students had opportunities for sightseeing as well. They visited a number of historic and Springsteen-related locations, including the Stone Pony, Paramount Theatre, and Convention Hall.
Prior to serving at the food bank, the freshmen from TCNJ raised $250 to donate to the nonprofit. Donohue said the hands-on service component was important, because it introduced them to volunteer work. During a debriefing session at the end of the day, a majority seemed to have enjoyed the opportunity and many were interested in volunteering with the Bonner Center in the future.
“We wanted them to work on an issue that Springsteen cared about,” said Donohue. “He hasn’t forgotten what it was like to be a person who was … struggling, and he’s gone out of his way to give back.”
Thinking back on the weekend, Donohue felt it was successful in capturing the legacy of “The Boss.”
“I think Springsteen would like that,” he said.
Ed’s note: An extended version of this story originally appeared in The Times of Trenton. This adaptation is reprinted with permission.