A city wrought with educational issues and a graduation rate of 56 percent, Schenectady is under the binoculars of many seeking to install change and progress within this upstate New York community. Union students Sharmeen Azher ’17 and Gianluca Avanzato ’18 seek to rewrite the educational issues faced by many youths within Schenectady through their writing-based program, Writing Our Communities (WOC). Avanzato and Azher both hope to instill long-term change for Schenectady High School students as well as help the city’s youth find a voice and pride for their community.
“Sharmeen and I both love to write,” reported Avanzato. “We write to reflect on our lives, gather our thoughts and de-stress. Sharmeen recognized the need for stability and empowerment in Schenectady, and asked me to join her in applying for a Davis Projects for Peace Grant. We then developed a three-week writing enrichment program, in which students from Union (mentors) work directly with students from Schenectady High School and other local schools to better articulate their stories through writing.”
Writing Our Communities is a mentorship program in which Union students work with Schenectady High School students to improve their articulation, communication and writing skills as well as to offer college preparation and editing sessions to better prepare students for entering higher-level education. Azher and Avanzato won funding for the program as grantees of the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Projects for Peace award, an annual $10,000 grant given to a project focused on instilling empowerment, community-building and peace. Writing Our Communities is a joint effort between Union faculty and students, the Schenectady Public Library, the Kenney Community Center and the Kelly Adirondack Center.
“We hoped that this program would not only present students with writing as a means of relaxation and healing, but also as a powerful driver of increased personal agency and self-advocacy,” explained Avanzato. “We try to present writing as a versatile tool of expression, and we hope that students will continue to use writing throughout their lives.”
In early July 2016, Writing Our Communities launched its first set of workshops; a three-week long summer program supervised by Union’s Director of Writing Programs, Joseph Johnson. Under Azher and Avanzato’s leadership, three other Union College students, Rebecca Lippitt ’19, Arthur Schutzberg ’17 and Jenna Salisbury ’18 served as the program’s primary mentors. In addition to the WOC mentors, each week featured a special guest speaker, including the owner of the Taj Mahal restaurant and retired journalist Mr. Waheed, and CEO of Proctors Theatre Philip Morris.
The guest speakers exposed the WOC mentees to various career paths, new avenues of expression and ways to engage with the local community. The 2016 WOC summer program had a total of ten participants.
In addition to offering an outlet to discuss social justice and foster creativity, the program worked to hone the students’ expression via writing and interpretation skills, which eventually culminated in a WOC Reception in Reamer Campus Center. The reception displayed the mentees’ written works and celebrated their progress and the program’s success. Parents, Schenectady High School counselors and Union faculty, including Dean of Studies Mark Wunderlich, were in attendance.
This year, with Azher on a term abroad in India, Avanzato has taken the reins of the WOC program and designed a series of workshops for the winter term. The winter WOC workshops are taking place in the Schenectady Public Library, with Avanzato, Lippitt and Salisbury reprising their roles as WOC mentors and a new addition, Allegra Dawes ’17, as the fourth mentor.
The winter workshops seek to develop mentees’ debate skills and focus on three main themes, listening, responding and discussion. Scaled down to just four mentees, the winter workshop participants get one-on-one attention with each mentor. Currently, these workshops are underway and will culminate in publishing the mentees polished writings in either the Schenectady newspaper, The Daily Gazette, or Union’s literary magazine, “The Idol.”
“Sharmeen and I have seen the incredible benefits of this program. In just a week or two, we’ve seen students find their voices, develop a love for writing and/or begin working through their personal narratives for healing and growth,” Avanzato added. “We began WOC with the intention of making a sustainable program that would go on beyond our graduations. Most recently, I’ve created a workshop series with the help and support of Joe Johnson, the Director of the Writing Center, and some Union mentors.
This workshop series, ‘Developing Your Voice,’ focuses on enabling students to participate well and appropriately in productive dialogue, especially with people whom they disagree with. We would like to see more workshops like this, as well as an annual summer enrichment program. To do this, we’ll continue to involve younger Union students as mentors/facilitators, and pass it off to them when the time comes.”