Crafting the College Summit Story

Tess Bissell ’17, Project 55 Fellow at College Summit in Washington, DC

Tess Bissell ’17 is from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. At Princeton she majored in Comparative Literature with a certificate in Humanistic Studies, and spent much of her time volunteering and working as an advocate for education equity. Her work included tutoring in prisons, serving as a college counselor to low-income, first generation youth, and overseeing Princeton’s broader student volunteer community as co-chair of the Pace Center’s Student Volunteers Council. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to continue this work as a Fellow with College Summit this year.

When I accepted a Project 55 Fellowship working in Development & Fundraising for a non-profit in Washington, DC, I did not expect to find myself within the concrete walls of a classroom at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County with my sneakers sopping wet and eight teenagers staring back at me. This year I have the privilege of working for College Summit – an organization that helps low-income and first-generation students around the country navigate the college application process. Each summer, we convene teams of high school students at weeklong workshops where they receive individualized college counseling and train as community organizers to help their peers back at home apply to college as well. As a brand new employee, I had been invited to the workshop to observe and learn more about College Summit’s work firsthand. But, within hours of arriving, the team realized that we were missing a volunteer writing coach. Instead of sitting quietly at the back of the classroom, I found myself standing at the front, tasked with coaching a cohort of seventeen-year-olds – who had just completed a reluctant ten-minute trudge across campus in the pouring rain – to write the first draft of their college application essays.

Although I spent much of my time at Princeton teaching and tutoring in various contexts – in prisons, in high school classrooms, and through internships – the College Summit method of writing instruction was unlike anything I had previously experienced. While the coach facilitates the sessions, it is the students who lead the charge. With their soaked sweatshirts hung across the classroom’s radiator, the Peer Leaders settled into their new role as investigative journalists – asking questions of their peers, probing into their stories, and critiquing their choice of language. Over the course of six hours, pages of freewriting sharpened into powerful, personal vignettes. One student described her experience working as the sole breadwinner of her family at her minimum wage job while dreaming of creating her own cosmetics line. Another wrote about the lack of diversity he saw on networks like ESPN, recalling a time when boys from his school screamed racial slurs at him as he mowed the lawn. For many of these students, it might have been the first time they had been told that their stories and experiences were worth being written down, meticulously edited and rewritten and edited again. You could see it in their eyes – a new kind of power seeping through their pens and out onto the page.

A few weeks later, I sat in our DC office staring at a blank word document. As a Comparative Literature major at Princeton, I had written countless papers, translated poetry, written long-form journalistic pieces, and – oh yes – a senior thesis. But now I was being asked to do something totally different: grant-writing. I had to distill – into a series of 250-word paragraphs – the essence of College Summit and all it does for high school students and their communities. It struck me, as I read through the application’s pages of questions and incomprehensible financial requirements, that this task was not unlike the one I had coached Peer Leaders through just weeks before. Just as in a college application, a grant application requires a non-profit to package its most impressive statistics into a succinct yet moving document, leveraging each question as an opportunity to impart something crucial and unique. It must appear professional, yet give the reader a sense of the organization’s unique personality. And for a non-profit like College Summit, the stakes are high: every dollar goes to helping another student make their dreams of post-secondary education a reality.

When I graduated from Princeton, I felt like I was leaving behind my time studying literature. I was a little sad at the thought that I would no longer spend hours holed up in East Pyne unpacking sentence structure, and, yes, even staying up all night writing feverishly because I was “in the zone.” I’m happy to say that I was wrong: Project 55 and College Summit have given me the opportunity to learn a new genre of writing – one that can have a powerful impact on our community.

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