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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2008 / 04 

Students help area tutorial program bring new pupils to an old school building

April 14, 2008

Julia Best
Julia Best

Throughout the academic year, student volunteers from Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus gather at the Christiansburg Community Center to help young area learners master a variety of academic skills.

In the process, teachers, and students are simultaneously honoring history. Perched on a steep hilltop on a narrow side street in Christiansburg, the weathered brick building was built in 1886 to house the first African-American private school in Southwest Virginia.

The building remained a school until 1947, and then housed YMCA activities before becoming the Christiansburg Community Center in 1963. It attained status as a Virginia Historical Landmark in 1966, but even more important, a new tutorial program for children began.

When funding ran out in 1968, student volunteers from Virginia Tech and Radford University came on the scene, providing program support and filling funding gaps. Though the Christiansburg Community Center has provided a home for many groups and activities since that time, its tutoring sessions, now under the supervision of Julia Best, have remained a constant.

Alfred Gamble of Suffolk, Va., a senior business management major in the Pamplin College of Business, entered the tutoring program through a service-learning placement to meet class requirements. He says he found that he actually likes “being there, being of help,” and enjoys putting his knowledge to work for the benefit of with students in the program. “It sounds corny, but you really are making a difference,” he says. He has continued as a volunteer this semester, although it is no longer a course requirement.

Program director Best took early retirement from her Newport News teaching position to earn a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at Virginia Tech in 2006. Her presence in the area is a boon to the community.

Last year, she worked with undergraduate and graduate students in education courses at Virginia Tech, both at the center and in the classroom. Currently, volunteer tutors come to her directly through the university’s Service-Learning Center and the Circle K International service and leadership organization at Virginia Tech, with about 24 volunteers tutoring young students each year. Circle K is the college branch of the Kiwanis family of organizations.

One of the students serving as a volunteer tutor is third-year engineering student Veni Avenida of Blacksburg, who came to the program through Circle K. Speaking of the campus organization, she says “working with the group is a great way to meet new people who share common interests.” She also says she feels motivated by her own childhood learning experiences. “It’s always good to have somebody helping you out,” she recalls.

“Word of mouth” brought Marc Cimmino of Williamsburg, Va., a sophomore finance major in Pamplin College of Business, to the center. Friends told him about the tutoring program, and it seemed to him a wonderful way to express his faith in a meaningful way. “As a Christian,” Cimmino says, “this is something I’m called to do.”

Meagan Chapman of Altavista, Va., a junior political science student in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, also became involved through Circle K. She began as a volunteer during her freshman year, but skipped the next year due to a cramped schedule and says she found she missed working with the children. “It’s really good to see the kids you work with ‘get’ something, when you see it finally sink in [it is] very rewarding.”

These four volunteers share that sense of accomplishment. They talk about the one-on-one connection they develop with their students and they say they get a kick out of sharing what they call “insider information” – learning tips they’ve discovered through their own studies that help smooth the way to understanding.

Best claims the feedback she receives from the volunteers and students’ teachers and families helps her evaluate the program and stimulates ideas for improvement. Best of all, her dialogue with school principals reveals how beneficial the program is to their students.

According to Best, the Christiansburg Community Center appreciates dedicated volunteers like the ones from Virginia Tech. The tutorial program currently engages about 12 volunteers per semester, but would welcome additions to that roster.

The Christiansburg Tutorial Program is free to all students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. It is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and arrangements for tutors can be made by calling (540) 381-0064 during those hours. For more information, contact Julia Best via e-mail.

Students are recording their service hours on the VT-ENGAGE website. The tutoring program is just one of many ways in which students are performing community service. VT-ENGAGE is the university's volunteerism initiative that is honoring those we lost April 16, 2007 during its first year.

Written by Sharon Crane.