Helping Boston Kids Survive the Trials of Remote Learning

Dental and medical students volunteer as online tutors during the pandemic

A student takes notes on a paper while sitting in front of a laptop. Tufts University dental and medical students have been volunteering as online tutors for school children during the pandemic.

Marisol Uribe knew all too well what it was like to be the new girl—not just new at school, but new to the country, and new to learning English. So when Uribe, now a student at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, began tutoring a Boston sixth-grader in a similar situation, there was an immediate point of connection. 

“I told her my story—I didn’t know a word of English,” says Uribe, D23, who came to the United States from Colombia when she was in tenth grade. “She can identify with that.” Uribe was paired with the girl, a student at the Josiah Quincy Upper School, through an online volunteer program that was started last fall by TUSDM students who wanted to help kids struggling with remote learning. 

Tutoring is especially valuable to kids right now, says Priyanka Kumar, D22, a founder of the dental students’ effort. In the past, TUSDM students have volunteered as tutors for sixth- to twelfth-graders at Josiah Quincy, whose buildings are a short walk from the Tufts health-sciences campus. When COVID forced remote learning, Kumar and her classmates launched an effort to offer tutoring via Zoom.  

Similarly, a decade-old volunteer tutoring program between students at Tufts University School of Medicine and Josiah Quincy also moved online to adapt to pandemic realities. A group of about 20 medical students say they’re committed to maintaining the relationship, despite the additional challenges of remote learning. 

“It's definitely more work to try to make that connection through a screen,” says Emi Hirsh, M24, who co-leads the medical group with Christian Jung, M24. “When you're in person, you can make more casual conversation. But there’s a special feeling when you feel like you’ve actually connected with a student over Zoom.” 

First-year medical students make up the bulk of the tutors and handle the leadership roles, as they tend to have the most availability. At the dental school, the volunteers include students from all classes, including third- and fourth- year students who have to juggle their commitments with patient care in the clinics. In that case, the pivot to Zoom turned out to be a “silver lining,” Kumar says: Rather than being hemmed in by a public-school schedule, the TUSDM tutors were able to meet with the kids in the evenings or on weekends. 

The videoconferencing platform allows the tutors to create lessons that play to the middle- and high-school students’ learning styles, such as using images or videos for kids who are visual learners. “We can cater to our students. We try to foster a very personalized type of relationship during the Zoom sessions,” says Karishma Gandhi, D23, who is coordinating the dental tutor program along with Kumar.

“The amount of thought and work that has gone into creating this program has been outstanding,” says Nancy Marks, Tisch College’s community service learning coordinator at the dental school. “This is community service work at its best,” especially at a time when so much community outreach has been curtailed by COVID restrictions.  

Tutoring gives the medical students a chance to provide meaningful benefits to their immediate community, agrees Jennifer Greer-Morrissey, community service learning coordinator for the School of Medicine. And it helps them learn skills they’re going to need in their careers. 

“As future doctors, they are going to have to take complicated concepts and make them really understandable to patients,” Greer-Morrissey says. “In the tutoring process it might be about trigonometry instead of medication, but all of those skills and that relationship building are very relevant to their future positions.”  

Many of the tutors are bilingual. “One of the goals was to have diverse tutors, since Josiah Quincy is such a diverse school,” Kumar says. “It’s good for the kids to see people who look like them, who are in graduate school, so they can dream those dreams. ” 

“Because we both speak Spanish, we were able to start communicating right away,” says Uribe, who coaches her sixth-grade student in math and science. When Uribe started high school in Florida after arriving from Colombia, she quickly learned English by talking with classmates—but in the isolated remote-learning environment, her tutoring partner lacks that social exposure.  

Remote learning poses other challenges for many of the Josiah Quincy students. Large families, small apartments, and lots of simultaneous activity can make it difficult to find a quiet spot. Students are allowed to keep their computer cameras turned off during tutoring sessions, or use Zoom backgrounds; like some others, Uribe’s student was shy about turning on the camera, but eventually went “face to face” for all their sessions.  

It's clear the connection between the dental student and the middle-schooler has become about more than science and math. “I want to give her opportunities,” says Uribe. “I’m doing this from my heart.”  

Helene Ragovin can be reached at Laura Castanon contributed to this report. 

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