Although Environmental Services, Facilities, and Dining Services are instrumental to our wellbeing at the college, most students will do no more than “say hello to them as they pass,” says Stephanie Charpentier ‘08, co-coordinator of the Learning for Life program. This 19 year old program creates an opportunity for thirty-five students to form real relationship with staff members in one of those departments.
Partners in the program spend a few hours a week together working on teaching one another practical skills. According to the other co-coordinator, Joslyn Young ‘10, many of these partners work on computer skills or on fitness, going to the gym or on walks together. Some of them do photography or cooking; last year one partnership researched sumo wrestling. Charpentier learned to crochet with her partner last year.
Al Miser, an EVS manager who has participated in Learning for Life off and on since its inception, says that in the past he has worked on learning to use the features of his phone, on computer skills, on photography, and also on going to the gym. He says some people have also used the program to prepare for their GED.
Most of these partnerships “tend to stay for however long the student is at Swarthmore,” according to Young, although there is always a little bit of turnover when students become too busy, the staff member leaves, or the like. Many partners also stay in touch after the student has graduated.
Miser says that this is remarkable, because “we come from different backgrounds.” He is a male African-American staff member who commutes from Philadelphia every day, and his partner is a “a female white student, [and yet] she and I have a real, real nice friendship and relationship.” They began working together last semester, and are still doing so.
In addition to the normal partner activities, the coordinaters are working on adding more group events. In the spring, they plan to have most of the group do some work in their garden; there will hopefully also be a day when students go to work with their partners for a few hours. At the end of the semester, there will be a party or maybe a trip to somewhere in the area. They also often travel to a literacy conference in North Carolina. The related Summer of Learning project tends to have more such trips, including outings to New York or to the beach in Delaware.
The program has also recently obtained its own space in the Lang Center that includes a library with relevant materials. They also hope to have a computer to help develop important technical skills. Charpentier says, the space is also meant to be somewhere where “people involved in the program can feel comfortable to use it as they want.”
The Lang Center’s donation of space is a part of their sponsorship of L4L. The program started in large part due to Education professor Diane Anderson’s efforts, but the two students most instrumental in the creation of the program — Susie Ansell ‘02 and Liz Derickson ‘01, who is now Housing Coordinator — did much of their work as Lang Opportunity Scholars.
L4L is now run by a Steering Committee, which includes students, faculty, and staff. This arrangement brings a “continuity in leadership that students,” as they are only involved for at most four years, “can’t provide on their own,” according to Charpentier. This approach also means that “decisions are made by all parties involved, rather than it just being set out by the administration,” as similar programs often are at other colleges.
Although the project was not instituted by administrative edict, the college is very supporting, according to the coordinators. “It’s a big deal for the college to let the staff to take up to three hours per week to participate in a program that does not directly affect their productivity,” Charpentier says. Miser says that he encourages members of his staff to participate, even though they are paid to participate in something essentially irrelevant to their work, because “it’s a beautiful program.”