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Sitting across from a high school senior — whose name I’ve learned only moments prior — to help craft their personal statement for college applications is an anxiety-inducing, yet rewarding experience. Will the student just stare at me as we sit across from each other? Will they have enough experiences to shape a compelling statement? I hold the responsibility of making sure each student feels comfortable to speak with me, a volunteer yet a stranger, about their life.

In the span of one hour, I’ll work with four students who grew up in South Central Los Angeles neighborhoods. From a student who aspires to become a composer because of their insatiable love for music to another student who strives to become a lawyer because of their aunt, as a volunteer mentor I’ve been entrusted with these students’ ambition and tasked to show how their experiences will drive their future.

I’ve also worked with students who have never believed college is for them, either because of their grades or because they would be a first-generation college student. After speaking with them, grateful for their willingness to be open, we might talk about other post-secondary options such as community colleges, trade schools, culinary schools, and cosmetology schools. Their perspective is opened from the four-year traditional route.

college students

The bond built between student and volunteer fosters the initiative for the student to pursue their future. For volunteer writing mentors like myself, the weight of a pencil or pen can parallel the protest signs that activists carry in the streets, amplifying a desire to make the world a better place to live in.

Under a volunteer’s guidance, students are not held by the financial and resource limitations of their zip code. Students receive invaluable time and conversation that aids in the advancement of their education and future career. They also become aware to set and celebrate goals that can feel daunting. When a student shares their experiences in writing, a reader’s perspective is opened to experiences that are unlike their own, which is the gift of storytelling.

T Sarmina, Writers’ Room Coordinator at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles by way of the youth education nonprofit 826 LA, agrees. Sarmina implements dozens of volunteer-staffed projects to support students with their creative writing and expository skills each school year, including a “Young Authors Book Project” and AP Literature essay preparation.

“Working with students one-on-one allows you to view their power outside of a frame,” Sarmina tells us. Sarmina goes on to say that activism is shaped by the hands of students that often are without the resources to pursue college. Those students’ hands are readily shaped into fists to fight to receive the support and guidance needed for achievement. Students strengthen writing and critical thinking skills necessary to thrive in the world. The work enacts freedom and equity in a direct way.

Sarmina recalls once seeing the legendary activist Angela Davis speak and the lasting impression it made on their work. “Each time I walk into a classroom, work with a student or walk into the hallway, [Davis’] words resound: Education is the language of freedom.”

The Writers’ Room at Manual Arts High School is lined with inspirational quotes on the walls, tables grouped closely together and anthologies of writing projects on the bookshelves and tables read through with wide eyes. Students regularly stick their heads into the classroom to either shout out “Sarmina” or ask to stop by after school. The exchanges amuse volunteers and warm the room.

Volunteers who work with 826LA return because they understand the value of helping students find their confidence through prose. Students respect volunteers for their patience and the individual attention they provide. Juniors and seniors learn how a strong personal statement can set them apart as prospective college students even more than grades and SAT scores alone. The cyclical relationship between students and the volunteers fosters the trust, growth, and courage to be ambitious through words and actions.

I am aware that in times of unrest, I cannot be comfortable. My impact can be made in the classroom by working with students and a phenomenal education non-profit that uplifts the work I seek to do. Volunteering gave me a personal goal to help students apply to and complete college. I firmly believe that giving students equal access to educational opportunities fosters a better society. They adapt to an ever-changing world and persevere with resilience and empathy.

Mentoring a potentially disadvantaged student in any place that impacts their education trajectory is activism in the classroom, creating a space for future leaders. Beyond the school walls, the work, support, and confidence mentors instill can continue to prosper.

Ashley Paul is a writer, student mentor, and pop culture enthusiast. She holds a BA from San Francisco University in Creative Writing. She holds an MA in Counseling & Guidance in K-12 from New York University. On her website,, she writes about her love for books and films. You can follow her on Twitter @driedinkpen.

(Photos via Ashley Paul + Getty Images)