By Madeline Merrill
Words cannot describe the thrill that accompanies the receipt of one’s first adult, independently filed library card. I fill out the mandated name, address, and phone number between the blank lines, and barely can contain myself as I itch to vault up from the information desk and into the shelves of fiction. I am a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, recently relocated to a small “city” for the first time in my life, and a twenty-two year old undaunted by the many quiet nights that await me in a part of the state with a population of roughly 14,000. No matter, I have my books.
Somewhere in the course of my short existence, reading transformed from an assignment to an escape, a to-do list item to a nirvana solely recreated by flipping from one page to the next, from one chapter to the subsequent.
After four years of English classes, of thesis and introductory paragraph after introductory paragraph, the need to discover the deeper meaner of happenings around me and the fine print of text on the pages seeped beyond my studies and into a calling as a college counselor for underserved, primarily low-income, first-generation college students. During the interview process for Carolina Corps, I was hesitant to forge a connection between the job description and my many late nights in Chapel Hill perfecting my wordage and obsessing over semicolons.
But on the eve of my first teacher workday, I suddenly see. During the process of literacy, we must first learn to read, sounding out the “cat” and “bat” and Sesame Street-flavored curriculum. But somewhere, the shift occurs, the educational “tipping point” arises, and we survive in a world saturated with knowledge and information by reading to learn.
Literacy transforms my students from eighteen-year-olds on the brink of leaving home, and quite possibly Rockingham County, for the first time, to mature young adults internalizing the many rich opportunities and unique perspectives a college campus has to offer. Reading and college access are not mutually exclusive, but rather, utterly interdependent. As a recently graduated English major, I guide my students through the application process, proofreading statements of purpose and essays galore. I redirect my command of the English language and that of my students’ in an effort to perfect their applications—but even more so, to prepare my youngsters for their respective two or four year journeys in higher education. The spoken and written word are powerful tools indeed, compasses that navigate us through the many challenges and hurdles with which life confronts us. My English studies provided me a verbal courage, and with that in mind, I hope to impart the same to my students—the courage to express, the courage to question, the courage to take chances, grow, and learn long after they receive a diploma.