All it took was some mentoring from a faculty member to put Albion College senior Tess Haadsma on track to pile up experiential learning opportunities to prepare her for a career in library science.
"I took a class with a Jess Roberts during fall semester in 2013 – a Whitman and Dickinson class," Haadsma recalled. "I really liked it, I learned a lot so I started taking more classes with her.
"Last spring she told our class about a practical persuasion class (for the 2014 fall semester) and it sounded really interesting," she added.
Practical Persuasion is a 300-level English course that aims to teach students how to plan and execute major writing projects, such as large grant applications. The section that Haadsma took was project based: the entire class was devoted to composing a grant application for The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program that engages communities in a shared reading experience. This alignment writing and community activism struck a chord with Haadsma.
"I'm interested in community engagement, so I thought I would give it a try," Haadsma said. "I have enjoyed reading and how it can people together. Once you read a book with someone you have that experience in common."
Haadsma was joined by two fellow seniors – Madeline Drury and Diana Gomez – in the practical persuasion class. Haadsma and her classmates worked closely with a planning committee of local residents to develop a Big Read program that would bring the community together around Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. The committee chose Ursula Le Guin's young adult fantasy novel both because it would appeal to a young audience and because it features a protagonist of color. The programming they developed to facilitate community engagement is particularly distinctive in that is offers Albion children in seventh to ninth grades important leadership roles in the community discussions of the book.
In addition to writing an application for a grant from The Big Read, Haadsma and her classmates have completed writing projects ranging from project narratives to promotional documents.
"They have had to use writing to engage with people who do not already have reason to care about them or our project, and perhaps more importantly, they have experienced the way their writing can make things happen in the world," Roberts said.
Albion will go ahead with the common reading experience that Haadsma and her classmates helped develop regardless of receipt of the grant.
"This project brings people together who will be reading the book but it brought people together in the planning process," Haadsma said. "It's nice to see all these people from different groups, organizations and backgrounds so on board with this project. We have made presentations to the city council, the school board and groups around campus and we've never been met with a negative reaction. Everyone we've met is enthusiastic and willing to get involved."
The 'awkward in between stage'
The students in the practical persuasion class will graduate in May, and Haadsma is exploring graduate school options at Indiana University and Wayne State University. That means it is likely they will leave the community before the common reading experience is executed in the fall.
"I think we'll try to come back for as much programming as we can," Haadsma, a Battle Creek native and Lakeview High School alum, said. "We are working on recruiting underclassmen from the college who can help with the process.
"It is tough knowing that all this will go on and I may not be around to be part of it, but regardless of whether or not I'll be here, it is a rewarding experience to know that as students we were able to help put this together," she added.
"This is hands-on experience I was able to write about in my personal statement when I was applying to graduate school," she continued. "It helped me realize the type of experiences I'm looking for in graduate school. An important aspect of my campus visits was to ask how their library program had active collaborations with community organizations."
If Albion's youth are empowered, Haadsma believes she and her classmates will declare their work in the project a success.
"One of the cool things I've noticed in the planning process is there are so many youth who are excited to learn and want to be a part of this," Haadsma said. "There is a group of youth who already are great leaders and there are so many more with the potential to be great leaders."
Becoming confident of her abilities
Before the Big Read project began, Roberts served as the adviser as Haadsma studied the 19thcentury view of motherhood through the poems of Sarah Piatt last summer for a project sponsored by the college's Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity.
While her work in the practical persuasion class and in the pool as a member of the Briton women's swimming team kept her from writing a thesis, her FURSCA project culminated with a long paper.
"Sarah Piatt was a prominent poet in her age, but her work fell out of print and was rediscovered [in the 1990s]," Haadsma said of her research. "It is related to library science in the preservation of an author's work."
The past year, Haadsma says, has been a year of remarkable growth in her confidence.
"I wasn't entirely certain what I wanted to do post-graduation until this past year," Haadsma said. "I wasn't confident with my abilities, and having these experiences has proven I enjoy these types of things.
"It has also showed me that there are always people who will support you," she added. "With FURSCA, Jess was really great and everyone has been supportive and willing to help with the common reading experience."
One of the most important activities is swimming and the opportunity to have a block of time to step away from academic responsibilities.
"Swimming allows me two hours each day to clear my head," Haadsma said. "I might have lost my mind without swimming."