The adult learners in the college and GED preparation program at St. John's/St. Ann's Outreach Center in Albany wanted to learn to write. Freshmen at Siena College in Loudonville needed something to write about.
John P. Harden, a volunteer at the center and a lecturer in the first-year seminar department at Siena, saw the opportunity in a partnership. He coordinates academic community engagement at Siena.
Since last fall, about 60 Siena students have taken turns mentoring SJ/SA students in writing for two hours a week. Together, they churn out articles for The South End Voice - currently a newsletter, but the students would like to turn it into a more comprehensive publication.
The group also hopes to publish a community literary journal inspired by field trips to historic sites like Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass., and Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass.
Mr. Harden brings meals each time his group visits. "I think it's really important to set the tone," he said. "The first thing we do is eat together."
The experience is making an impact on both groups.
"I have students who are just begging me to come all the time now," Mr. Harden told The Evangelist. "It's a very different experience than just learning in the classroom. They are engaged by [the SJ/SA students'] stories.
"What my students lack," he added, "are life experiences."
The college/GED preparation program has helped more than 150 students gain academic confidence since it started four years ago. Fifteen graduates have continued on to college.
A $50,000 grant the program received in 2010 ended last summer; coordinators now rely on volunteers, but aim to get more grants and corporate sponsorships in order to expand.
Students are often strapped for time and come to SJ/SA seeking more than just tutoring.
"Learning or preparing for the GED sometimes is secondary," said volunteer Perdietha Rogers, who often refers students to resources where they can find clothing, furniture and other essentials.
Some students, she said, haven't been to school in 20 years. They need extra assistance in acclimating to a learning environment, overcoming test anxiety and getting acquainted with math and reading.
More and more students in the program are teenagers coming straight from a high school at which they struggled.
The Siena partnership is secondary to the center's main curriculum, but "a dream," said Sylvia Jimison, coordinator and founder of the preparation program.
Mr. Harden views the partnership as part of a "bridge to college" program for the South End community. A grant from Siena's Damietta Cross-Cultural Center has funded field trips and will help Siena establish a research room on the second floor of the center and publish the journal.
"Hopefully, it will be the first of many," Mr. Harden said of the publication, "and it will be a culminating experience. I have learned that when people write, they regain their voice - especially for people who have not been valued."
This applies to SJ/SA students, he said, but also to his first-year students, who are mostly 18-year-olds who have never lived away from home.
Mr. Harden is planning spring trips to museums and a Harlem Renaissance tour; next year, he hopes to build up the partnership and involve the larger community.
"It's all about what's going to best serve [the adult learners]," he said. Now, "we're building a model of community engagement. This perfectly fits in with the Siena College mission and the Franciscan ideals.
"I thought when I did this I was taking a risk, never realizing it would take on so much," he added.