Science, Art, and Young Mentors for Middle School Students

An after-school program run by undergraduates at Hillel brings Medford youngsters to Tufts’ campus

On any given Tuesday or Thursday afternoon this semester, a group of sixth and seventh graders from McGlynn Middle School and Andrews Middle School in Medford hop on a school bus for the short ride to Tufts. They are coming for an after-school program run by undergraduates at Tufts Hillel, focusing on science and the arts, along with homework and tutoring help.

“They’re very rambunctious,” says Sophie Peckler, a sophomore child studies major who volunteers with the Hillel Community Action Partners program, which began two years ago as an effort to help Tufts students get more involved with the local community.

The science programming on Tuesdays features projects like building bridges with popsicle sticks, and the program on Thursdays focuses on making art, with some lessons about artists in history. 

Ilana Smaletz, a sophomore biology major, helps come up with art projects. “If we are doing a Picasso-style painting, we would explain who Picasso was or what cubism is, but it’s an after-school program—the kids are already so done with school,” she says. “It’s mostly getting the kids involved and engaged in the arts.”

Making Personal Connections

For Smaletz, the program is also about connecting with kids. “I think it’s so important for them to have someone to talk to,” she says. “You never know what’s going on in their lives, and you never know if you’re the only person that cares or not. I can interact with them in a language that they understand, and eventually they open up about whatever’s going on in school or if they have any struggles that they want to talk about.”

Seeing friendships form between the students and the Tufts volunteers is gratifying, adds Peckler. “They see us as these cool college kids, and soon they remember you and ask about your day and become comfortable around us,” she says. “I’ve had long conversations with them about their favorite Taylor Swift songs.”

Sometimes the kids use the time to work on homework, too, often with help from the Tufts students. Smaletz has done some informal tutoring in those moments and enjoyed it. “It’s so special, because it’s sometimes hard to get through to the kids—they don’t want to say in front of everyone else in class that they need help with this specific thing, but they can here,” she says.

Serving the Community

Liana Smolover-Bord, a junior double majoring in political science and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, was one of the creators of the after-school program. She and two other students, in concert with Lauren Bloom, associate director of Tufts Hillel, reached out to administrators at Tufts about doing work with the local community. The administrators suggested talking to the principal of McGlynn Middle School. 

He told them that after-school programs would be most beneficial, and polled his students about topics they would like covered. The top choices were arts and science, along with homework help. Soon the undergrads came up with detailed plans for the program and started recruiting volunteers among their classmates.

“I came to it from a point of view of Jewish-based values of community service and social justice work –they matter a lot to me, and the fact that the after-school program came to fruition is really great,” Smolover-Bord says. 

Now on a semester abroad in Spain, she plans to be active in it again in the coming fall semester.

Each semester there are between 10 and 15 volunteers, most of them working directly with about 30 middle schoolers and a few working behind the scenes to run the program. As Tufts students’ schedules change, more student volunteers are needed, so the team recruits from clubs focused on tech, science, and art, and directly recruits, too; some volunteers hear about it through word of mouth. “It’s really awesome that it’s an on-campus volunteer opportunity, because it’s hard for the college students to get off campus to do this kind of work,” adds Smolover-Bord. 

At the end of each semester, the program puts on a showcase, inviting the middle school students and their families to come see the work the students have done over the semester. “We save all of their artwork and engineering projects, and we put on a gallery display,” says Peckler. “The volunteers speak a little bit about what they’ve done that semester, and the kids show their parents what they’ve made.”

Smaletz says it’s a highlight for her, showing the parents “that we’re really getting something done and that the kids enjoy it.”

The Tufts students are also winners. “The people that volunteer to do this program want to be working with this age group, and I think they get a lot out of it,” says Smolover-Bord. “They’re always surprised that middle schoolers really want to interact with college students.” 

The middle schoolers want to know what’s like being a college student, “and they also want to talk about their 12-year-old problems and be taken seriously, and our volunteers do that, and I think it means a lot to them,” she says.

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