Every Wednesday during the semester, I would make the four-block stroll from SIPA to PS 36 Margaret Douglas, a primary school in Morningside Heights. If the children were in the playground, I could hear their unbridled laughter and shouts from almost a block away, and it would always make me smile. My 45-minute sessions with my mentee, who was in kindergarten in my first year and then Year One in my second year, quickly became the highlight of my week and my time in New York City. 

I first learned of the opportunity to volunteer in my first weeks at SIPA, through a standard university-wide email asking for students to sign up. I was excited by the chance to continue benefiting from volunteering and start building connections to my new local community. Read Ahead had a vision I was keen to contribute to: ‘students have the opportunity to unlock their full potential through mentoring relationships based on a love of reading.’

Columbia University has partnered with Read Ahead for almost 22 years and has two schools in the area specifically set up to better accommodate the university calendar. The partnership makes volunteering as a university student easier because the Read Ahead Coordinators are familiar with semester breaks and you get to see friends who are also mentoring and meet new ones. Once I was accepted into the program, there was a tailored volunteer training at Columbia before I first wandered into the brightly decorated corridors of PS 36 to meet the child I’d been paired with.

At first, she was very shy and I would get only monosyllabic answers to any questions. So I spent the first few weeks reading different books and seeing if anything piqued her interest. We eventually found a book that she became obsessed with, and at last count, we had read it together at least 50 times (sometimes multiple times a week) and she had memorized most of the words to ‘Clay Mates’ by Dev Petty. Every week we read, drew, colored and played games together. I was often the victim of a very unfair game of Uno or Headbandz but she repaid my silent suffering a thousand times over with great portraits and artwork, like the two pictured in this blog.

I also enjoyed being able to visit a school and see the US education system up-close. My mother is a teacher and principal, and I worked in education funding before coming to SIPA, so I’ve always felt connected to schools even after leaving school myself. It was my first experience with US school cafeteria food because we met during lunch so the children ate, and that’s how I first saw chicken and waffles (with maple syrup!). 

As an Australian and South African, my accent leans more towards British-Commonwealth English with distinctly round vowels so I often have to “correct” my pronunciation of words, like “fast” or “park” so that my mentee doesn’t accidentally adopt my strange hybrid accent too. If I forgot to change my pronunciation or word choice, sometimes she would just stare at me blankly, as if I were indeed speaking a foreign language. 

With schools closed, the program is temporarily suspended while the world adjusts to COVID-19. I was delighted to receive an email from the Read Ahead staff this week inviting me to send my mentee a written message along with photos and a video message. So I sent her the YouTube read-aloud version of Clay Mates (watching it made me very nostalgic) and introduced her to my cats, hoping she won’t be too mad at me for not visiting her for so many weeks already.

I wish I could have spent more time as a Read Ahead Mentor, perhaps just long enough for us to read all of the Harry Potter books together. And though we’re now 9,951 miles away from each other, I hope our love of reading will continue.