It Starts in the Schools: How Participating in the HHSI Defined My College Career

By Angelica Beneke

Earlier this semester, I described what I was doing every Tuesday and Thursday to the Catholic campus minister and a fellow senior. I said I go over to tutor students at Hempstead High School and have done so ever since the program was launched my sophomore year in 2015. I’m always excited to talk about the initiative with other people and every chance I get, I talk about it. I don’t do this to show off or be superior in any way. I genuinely love this program and I think it’s awesome an opportunity like this exists through Hofstra.

Interestingly enough, the fellow senior gave me the strangest look as if I told her I secretly had two heads. She then repeated “Hempstead High School?” and went on to explain how it used to be such a great school when her grandfather went there years ago, “but now it’s . . .” She said more, but I tuned her out in that moment out of reflex. Her “that’s too bad” tone and her interjection had said it all to me. Why willingly go volunteer at one of the worst schools in in the area where there are better volunteer opportunities? She didn’t intend any ill will, I’m sure.  But, as someone who has been super involved with the high school and the Hempstead High School Initiative since its inception, I was bothered by that comment then and, as I type this, I’m still bothered by it now.

Yes, Hempstead High School has an alarmingly low graduation rate compared to schools such as Garden City High School. Yes, Hempstead High School, much like Hempstead itself, has a certain reputation associated with its minority student population. Yes, I could have decided to look for other and “safer” volunteer opportunities instead of tutoring at Hempstead High School and being exposed to metal detectors not unlike those at an airport.

But, I didn’t. And I don’t regret being adamant about volunteering consistently at this school.

It’s often said that consistently volunteering changes you. I did volunteer quite a bit during my time as a student in an all girls’ Catholic high school back in Houston, Texas and those experiences, especially volunteering at elementary and middle schools, did change me for the better and made me more aware of the reality of America through the eyes of education.

Volunteering at a high school as a college student has not only reaffirmed that, but it has also opened my eyes to how those society deem as lazy, unintelligent, and uncaring because they can’t pass some state tests are actually some of the brightest, most motivated, and most hard-working individuals who only need someone to give them a chance, not drown them with more tests when they don’t meet ridiculous test standards.

I know there are more tutors than just me who are in this program, but I feel that if I wasn’t a tutor at Hempstead High School, who else would be giving these kids a chance? I may not always know the answers to the problems they have to work on, but, to them, I represent the fact that college is an option, that someone cares that they get a wholesome education, and that someone believes in their potential not just as a student, but as a person.

This worldview is something that motivates me not just to volunteer outside the program but to do my best in everything I do – classes, extracurriculars, friendships – and just give people the chances that they need.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I’ve had all positive and perfect experiences while volunteering at this school. I have struggled with trying to motivate these kids to do their homework or work on practice problems for the Regents when all they would rather do is talk among themselves about their plans for the week. In fact, I have only recently figured out ways to keep them on track whenever this happens. Plus, English isn’t exactly the most popular subject that people want to work on, especially in high school. As a result, sometimes, I’ll be awkwardly sitting at a table by myself while other students needing assistance in other subjects are being helped.

But, when these moments arise, I’m reminded I’m not alone in this initiative, thanks to the spectacular Ms. Darien, a science teacher at the school who is Hofstra’s liaison with the high school. I’m not exaggerating when I say she’s one of the reasons (after really wanting to help these students, of course) I kept coming back to this program. I could tell from day one that she genuinely cares about the high school students and the tutors and their success not only in this program, but life in general. I can’t even begin to say how many times she’s had my back throughout my time as a HHSI tutor.

Yes, I volunteer at Hempstead High School. Yes, I absolutely love it and am sad that next semester will be my last semester with the program. But, I have no doubt the program will grow exponentially after I graduate Hofstra and Hempstead High School will no longer be seen as the school for the delinquents, but a school full of smart, talented, hardworking, and witty students.

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