February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Why Med School Students Tutor at My Library

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Tutor Time, our library partnership with students from the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU), began in September 2013, when I was a youth services librarian at the Ferry Avenue Branch of the Camden County (NJ) Library. Brian McCauley, a CMSRU student, contacted me about having medical school students reading to kids as part of CMSRU’s curriculum of providing community service to Camden residents.

In the past, we had tried to partner with a local university’s education students. But as their workload intensified and class schedules changed, it was hard to maintain consistent programming. The university withdrew.

It was particularly busy in our branch when McCauley arrived for our meeting. Kids were asking for help with algebra and geometry while I was answering the phone, assisting in the computer lab, and fielding requests for snacks. I asked Brian on the spot if he could help the kids with their math problems. He did, and the next day he proposed the tutoring initiative.

CMSRU students must complete 40 hours of service learning a year (or about one hour per week or two hours every other week). It was important that our library projects expose them to the socioeconomic and cultural barriers faced by many Camden residents.

Our short-term goals included assisting children with homework; providing positive role models; encouraging a respectful learning environment; inspiring kids to read and think critically; modeling healthy eating habits through a food enrichment program; and learning about Camden through the eyes of the kids.

Our long-term goals included collaborating with library staff to address other needs the children might have; fundraising and seeking grants for more programs; and improving CMSRU-Camden community relations. We agreed that we needed a yearlong commitment to provide consistency for Camden children, who frequently have people disappear from their lives. We also designed a rotating leadership structure with at least two tutors, so the program won’t collapse if one could no longer volunteer. Our leaders are always in different years of training, so that when the older one rotates out, the other takes over. Tutor Time now meets four days a week, with six to eight tutors on any given day. In 2014, I received the CMSRU Martin Luther King Jr. Service Award for outstanding commitment and service to the Camden community.

Recently, I ran into some students from our original 2013 group. My heart swelled as I listened to Justin and Tomas bicker good-naturedly over which classes “counted” more to get them into college. Both plan on careers in medicine—like their mentors.

Lisa K. Brandenburg is senior librarian, youth services at the Anthony P. Infanti Bellmawr Branch of the Camden County (NJ) Library.

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