UT’s Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center recently launched a program intended to assist Austin-East Magnet High School seniors with their essays for college applications.
The center decided to launch the program to continue the work of a group of English graduate student tutors who partnered with Project Grad at Austin-East to tutor seniors. The program has been funded through Javiette Samuel, assistant vice chancellor of diversity and engagement.
The center chose to start the program specifically at Austin-East because of its flagship status with the university. There are three Knox County Schools designated by the university as flagship schools, and Austin-East is one of them.
Anne Langendorfer, Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center tutor, English lecturer and Community Outreach Fellow, said that this designation allows for the schools to receive more support because of the lack of support they have gotten in past years. Additionally, students from these schools have an opportunity to receive a generous Flagship Scholarship.
“These are high schools where they specifically want to support students from these high schools to pursue college because historically they have not produced a lot of students who feel they are welcome or who don’t have socioeconomic advantages that would have predisposed them to apply and come to UT,” Langendorfer said.
Savannah Brown, a junior English and sociology major and tutor involved with the program, said that another main reason for the focus on Austin-East is the tragic events the school has witnessed in the past year, most notably a fatal shooting incident involving police officers last April. Brown emphasized the importance of UT being a resource to Austin-East students.
“I think all schools are important to touch on, but Austin-East specifically because they have just experienced so much turmoil this past year, and honestly, East Knoxville doesn’t get the support that they need from really anybody,” Brown said. “It’s just so important that we can be a resource for them so that they know that they have options and they have the support when they need it.”
The Writing Center recruited UT students who underwent a training process to help them understand how to connect with and tutor high school students.
The tutors planned to go to Austin-East to tutor students, but due to COVID-19 restrictions and some miscommunication, they have mostly met with students online via Microsoft Teams. They recruited students interested in being tutored by hanging up flyers and teaming up with the Project Grad program at the high school to find interested seniors.
Brown said that being able to create a connection with the students is of the utmost importance, and that they can all relate to being in school.
“Sometimes it can be a little difficult because all of us are from different backgrounds, but I think one thing we can do to connect with them is just letting them know that we are students too,” Brown said. “Just letting them know that they’re not alone in that process and that we’re here to help you.”
“We want you to see us as a mentor but also a friend.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the university announced that it would not require high school students to submit standardized test scores to be considered for admission to the school. Instead, they could submit an additional essay in lieu of the ACT or SAT.
Kat Powell, assistant director and tutor-training coordinator of the Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center, said that these essays give students an opportunity to be fully seen as more than a test score or GPA in the admissions process.
“We all have a lot of stories to tell, and it’s the one chance to choose the story,” Powell said. “You get to choose the story that you think best represents you, rather than when you’re asked to give other criteria, you don’t have a lot of choice over that.”
Kirsten Benson, director of the Writing Center, believes that everyone, but specifically high school students, can struggle with being confident in telling their story. This program gives them a chance to build their confidence with the support of a trusted tutor.
“I think there’s also issues about confidence in oneself as a writer, and I think that’s a big issue for the students we’ve worked with so far is not being sure … whether what they have to say is really meaningful,” Benson said. “Everyone has those worries about writing, but it can be a real stumbling block.”
“Having the support to talk through those concerns is, I think, one of the key elements of what we’re trying to offer.”
Langendorfer believes that being confident in your story can be helpful in crafting a successful college admissions essay that gives administrators a real glimpse at who you are.
“It’s kinda funny to think about this essay where you talk about something about yourself as being super powerful, but it actually is the only way in that packet that you submit that helps someone understand how you tell a story about yourself and reveal something about yourself that helps the university see you as a potential member of the community,” Langendorfer said. “It’s so revealing of character, of those intangible things that you just can’t get from numbers that you can get through personal story.”
Oftentimes, the idea of a college essay is intimidating to students, but this new program intends to encourage students to know that they can focus on any story they’d like to in their essays.
“Austin-East has experienced a lot of traumatic events and the students have as well, so being able to let them know that they can write about anything … steering them in the direction that they have a wide variety of things they can talk about,” Brown said. “They can go anywhere they want to go and they don’t have to use their trauma to get there.”
The Writing Center values writing in general, but more than anything else, they value the ways in which this new program could help UT build a stronger connection with Austin-East. They hope to eventually build upon the program to include Fulton and Central High Schools and form connections there as well.
“On a larger scale, the strengthening of connection between the university and the schools is extremely important,” Benson said.
The staff and students at the writing center have been inspired to dig into helping the community, and this new program is a tangible symbol of their work toward caring for the high schools in Knox County.
“When someone takes their time to listen to and help another person that is, I think, just the definition of care,” Benson said. “So that’s I think what the bottom line is, just creating sort of an environment of care. I don’t mean creating it from scratch because I think it’s already there in a lot of different ways, but contributing to and building an environment of care I think is what really matters.”