Paying it Forward

Paying it Forward

Paying it Forward

June 27, 2008

Adrienne Herrera, Program for Academic Leadership and Service Scholar

GS student and Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS) Scholar, Adrienne Herrera spent the past year developing and facilitating outreach events, “SYMPOSIUM” and “EXPLORERS,” which targeted New York City high school and elementary school students. Prior to the development of these events, Herrera co-coordinated the PALS “No Limits” event, which introduces local high school students to college.

Herrera’s path to GS was quite different than her trajectory now. A former actress and musician, Herrera spent two years touring the world with her rock band and in New York City performing in Off-Broadway shows. After developing her talents in the arts world, Herrera decided she wanted to expand her educational prowess.

How did your previous career shape your interest in Sociology and English?

I have had a number of careers, so it’s hard to say. I have a very different academic focus than when I first arrived at Columbia. I have discovered the nature of learning is two-fold; it inspires, but comes with responsibility. Literature has nurtured my love of the imagination whereas sociology has nurtured my curiosity about human beings, as well as my sense of justice.
 
Before coming to Columbia, were you involved in community service?
 
My family has always been active in the community. My paternal grandparents were active in Chicano issues focused on education and equal opportunity. Additionally, my mom is always the first person to help when her community is in need. Being raised by people who were focused on others, I have a deep sense of what Kant would call “duty.” When I began at GS, my mom made me promise to honor the amazing opportunity of a Columbia education by doing something worthwhile.
 
How did you come up with the idea for "SYMPOSIUM" and for "EXPLORERS"? What is your vision?
 
Despite the efforts of my parents and teachers, right out of high school, I was not a strong college student. I lacked both confidence and vision. Many intelligent students who are in a similar situation as I once was may not know how to gain access to information about college or know anyone like them who has been to college. After co-coordinating PALS “NO LIMITS” for two years, I wanted to add a new twist to an already phenomenal event. The mission of “SYMPOSIUM” is to lift the veil of secrecy on attending college. To accomplish this mission, “SYMPOSIUM” pairs high school students one-on-one with Columbia students for a college class designed to introduce high school students to the rigors of a classical learning environment. Additionally, students are given campus tours and an introduction to the college application process. At the first “SYMPOSIUM,” more than 20 students from the School of General Studies and Columbia College were paired with high school students from the Bronx and the Lower East Side. The idea for “EXPLORERS” was bred from a Teach For America study which said fourth-grade is the time when suburban children become aware of the idea of college. In order to provide a level playing field for inner city fourth graders, aimed to expose them to college as an option after high school. For the first “EXPLORERS”, more than 80 Bronx fourth graders were invited to Columbia’s campus. They were broken-up into small groups led by GS and CC student volunteers. The children spent the day asking questions of Columbia students, professors, and administrators, as well as participating in a workshop on, ”What I Want to be When I Grow Up.” In another exercise, my small group of three boys developed their self-confidence by engaging in an exercise in professional social interaction. Their task was to approach people, introducing themselves, shake hands and ask to cultivate a conversation a lot of questions. Overall, “EXPLORERS” was a lot of fun; the kids were a crack up.
 
How did the student-faculty partnership benefit each of these projects?
 
Contributions from the GS administration and Jill Muller, Columbia English Department Lecturer in Discipline, were absolutely vital. Dean McGee, Dean Halvorson and Dean Limardo have been my mentors since I came to Columbia, and for both “SYMPOSIUM” and “EXPLORERS” they were supportive every step of the way. Professor Jill Muller, my Literature Humanities professor and mentor, understood my vision and caught my enthusiasm. We were broadly discussing ideas, and before I knew it, she had signed on to teach the classic play “Medea” at “SYMPOSIUM.” She suggested the elementary school outreach. We were off to the races! Both projects would have been impossible without Professor Muller.
 
Tell me about the follow-up work you are doing with these high school and elementary students.
 
Since April, we have done six lunch seminars with the high school students about resume writing, college applications, community service and work, personal essays and other general questions on college. We have discovered that it is one thing to guess what the students want or need, and quite another, to know what they actually do. Although these students are at the top of their class, they are not totally convinced they can get to college, let alone succeed and they lack access to good information. We are trying to craft a strong response to both issues. We want to instill confidence in them by pointing out their strengths, just as people have done for GS students, as well as get them better informed of opportunities available to them. As nontraditional students, GSers are well suited to the task.
 
I know you are planning on running these events again. Are you planning on implementing any changes?
 
I am planning two “SYMPOSIUM” events each semester in the 2008-2009 academic year. Students from this year’s event would like to come back, so we are putting together a second day for them. We will also be inviting two or three more schools to participate. Professor Muller will have to pick another classic play from Columbia’s Literature Humanities curriculum. We have a lot of options to explore. What really worked this year was the performance element where the high school students reinterpreted “Medea” and made it current to them. The Columbia partners from both GS and CC made it happen. They just shined. What amazing people. They were invested in their student partner and the project from the moment they heard about it.