The Colgate Scene
July 2005

Let's get ready!
Junior creates SAT prep program for area high school students

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

On any given Thursday or Sunday afternoon this past semester, junior Danilo Cortés could be found running back and forth between classrooms on the second floor of Lawrence Hall, joking with local high-schoolers, studying printouts of test scores, setting out soda and cookies, or teaching a class on studying for the SAT exam.

All in a day's work for the political science and film studies major who launched and coordinated the university's Let's Get Ready! (LGR) program through the Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE). After kicking off the college preparation initiative in January, the native of Santiago, Chile, became a master of multi-tasking.

"It was fun -- I ended up doing a lot of different things, not just administrative stuff," he said.

He found a niche for himself at Colgate, he said, by helping people.

Connecting to the community
Cortés's LGR program is an offshoot of a larger national initiative. The program gives high school juniors and seniors tools and tips to effectively take the SAT exam, helps them put together admissions application materials, and generally opens their eyes to the higher education opportunities available to them. Only eight other schools around the country -- including Columbia, Princeton, and Brown -- offer LGR classes, according to the organization's website.

Cortés introduced the program on campus himself with the help of Julie Dudrick, the new initiatives team coordinator with the COVE. Cortés recruited 20 Colgate undergrads to serve as math or verbal "coaches" for LGR, while Dudrick spread word of the initiative among guidance counselors from Hamilton, Madison, Morrisville-Eaton, Sherburne-Earlville, and Waterville high schools. Soon they had 33 local juniors and seniors for the program, many of whom qualified for the reduced-cost lunch program, or were among the first in their families to think about attending college, said Cortés.

"The SAT is strategy-based, so people who don't have the resources to take a Kaplan course or get a private tutor and learn those strategies are at a severe disadvantage," said Jen Kyhos, a junior and LGR volunteer. "By starting LGR up at Colgate, Danilo is addressing a real need around here."

Cortés, Kyhos, and fellow Colgaters worked with their pupils during two three-hour classes a week: Thursday afternoons were reserved for boning up on "vocab," fine-tuning reading analysis skills, and working on essays (for the SAT and college admissions materials), while on Sundays they practiced math problems and participated in college preparation activities such as filling out applications or trekking to area universities for tours. To gauge the progress of his students and coordinate lesson plans for his classes, Cortés gave the high schoolers three diagnostic SAT tests. They took the first in January, the second in late March, and the final one in April. They took the official SAT exam May 7.

While he admitted that he was a little bit nervous for his students going into the test, Cortés said he felt mostly at ease, "because I know that we had them well prepared for it." He said he tried to stress to the students beforehand that they shouldn't place too much importance on the SATs, because the exam alone does not decide whether they are going to attend college or not, and scores are not the most crucial factor in the application process. "Almost all of our students had already decided that they are going to attend college, which to me is the most important thing," he said.

Cortés's calming words paid off: Out of his 20 students who took all three diagnostic tests, the average increase in final SAT scores was a whopping 121 points.

When he wasn't obsessing about the standardized tests, Cortés spent his time this past semester attending class, spinning tunes as a WRCU deejay, keeping up on his academics, and pursuing another passion: filmmaking. But as the campus coordinator of LGR, most of his free hours -- 20-plus a week, he estimated -- were devoted to planning and taking care of the logistics of the program. "It was a lot of time, but it's really rewarding helping students with the process," he said.

Cortés learned that on his own before founding the program at Colgate. During the past few summers, he had participated as a coach in an LGR program in Summit, N.J., that caters to urban students from the New York City metro area. (His family moved there from Chile in the late 1990s.) He wanted to continue the initiative in Hamilton, he said, so he enlisted the help of the COVE to establish an LGR program on campus.

"I've been really impressed with Danilo's dedication to this program, given the amount of work that administering it requires," said Dudrick. "The success of LGR this year at Colgate rested entirely on his shoulders."

The Colgate coaches enjoyed the program as well. "I learned that I can make a real difference in the lives [of the high schoolers]," said first-year Deborah Charney, a verbal coach. She added that she enjoyed getting to know her pupils, and plans on keeping in touch with at least four of them as they enter college.

But the real winners are the high school students, said Kayla Hauck, a junior from Morrisville-Eaton High School. "It's not as intimidating to be taught by someone who is so close to you in age," she explained. "They know how to talk to you, and they just went through the same process not too long ago, so they really understand."

Kayla Corpin, also a junior at Morrisville-Eaton, agreed: "It's not stressful at all working with college students. It's pretty fun, actually."

Turning over the reins
Cortés himself called his involvement with Let's Get Ready "an awesome experience" but said he was glad to have time to do other things now that the program is over for the year. This summer, he is traveling around Europe on a research grant that he received through Colgate's university studies program. He's filming what he sees as "the role that modernity plays in the relationship between human beings and the spaces that surround them," such as the legacy of history and the effects of city life.

He returns to Colgate in mid-July to edit his footage, and he plans to have a show or a screening in the fall. And next spring, he will participate in LGR again -- only this time, as just a tutor.

"I really wanted other students to get involved so that the ownership of the program would expand beyond me and ultimately outlast my stay at Colgate," he said. "I feel very comfortable with the new leadership, as I'm sure that their ideas and energy will improve LGR."

He added: "Most people simply want an opportunity to reach their goals, and I think this program helps them with that."

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