supporting Cambridge public school students

“My great fortune to work as a volunteer…”

By Ken Shulman, CRLS College Ready Mentor, seen above with student Feben


In October 2013, I joined Cambridge School Volunteers. I’d lived in Cambridge for more than a decade, and was somewhat embarrassed at how little I’d given back to the community. I’ve worked as a professional writer, journalist, and filmmaker for more than 30 years. Perhaps my skills might be useful to students. My first student, Robell, was a CRLS senior and shooting guard on the varsity basketball team. Thanks to the CSV tutorials and training I received, I was able to listen to him long enough to gain his confidence. Soon we were talking about his life, his progress, and his dreams, deciding together what kind of story he wanted to tell in his college application essay.

Later in the academic year, I worked with Feben, an immigrant from Ethiopia who progressed from ESL to College Prep classes in just two years. She’s passionate, strong-minded, and always greets me with a hug. But she also resisted my direction. At first I thought she was stubborn. But as our work progressed, Feben made me understand that she had good reason for her choice of word and structure, that her methods were every bit as convincing and engaging as the ones I was trying to fit her with. Chastened, I worked to refine her talent, ever so slightly, so she could be even more effective without losing her singular voice. We worked on essays for her U.S. history class, and later, on her college essays. This past fall, she received a full four year scholarship from Colby-Sawyer College.

Gahngnin was my second student last spring, a young man from Korea. He was a tutor’s dream — punctual, organized, and polite. He always called me Mr. Shulman. We worked on the essays and presentations he prepared for his U.S. constitutional law class. Gahngnin is very bright, but wrestles with the idiosyncrasies and Spartan economies of written English. Week after week we deleted large swaths of text from his essays. One day, after we sculpted yet another block-like sentence into something more graceful, I saw something flicker in his eyes. “Mr. Shulman,” he said, turning to me. “I did not know words could do such things.” In late spring, Gahngnin invited me to his robotics competition at BU’s Agganis Arena. He is now studying at Bunker Hill Community College, and hoping to transfer to a four-year school next year. He writes me often, and even left a gift on my doorstep over Christmas.

I began this school year with Taseen, a college bound senior of Bangladeshi descent with a gift for science and a passion for stand-up comedy. Taseen was already a gifted and disciplined writer when he came to me. We were able to take risks and test limits in almost every session; he is quick and agile enough to make corrections on the spot. Taseen was very interested in my writing process – “do you do it like that?” he would ask, when I suggested a certain outline technique or essay structure. In addition to making me laugh – and making me proud – Taseen also forced me to re-examine my own work habits.

It has been – and is – my great fortune to work as a volunteer at CRLS. My fellow tutors are inspiring, and CSV provides excellent and useful support. I have worked with more than a dozen students. They vary wildly in background, ability, and means. But all of them are eager and earnest. All of them have that sense of wonder that we so easily lose once we leave school and join the world. All of my students have forced me to revisit my own work, and my convictions. I do hope my students are better writers and thinkers because of the time we’ve spent together. I know I certainly am.

You can read more about volunteer Ken Shulman and his new venture, Away Games, at the Harvard Gazette. And, check out Taseen’s robotics website.