Passing Along the Joy of Learning

By Julia Munemo

For the last seven years, teenagers from Pittsfield have been spending afternoons in January at Williams working on independent projects and connecting with a college student mentor. The program is a Winter Study course called Learning Intervention for Teens (LIFT), and it’s aimed at teenagers in the juvenile court system. Rather than serve out probationary terms for their offenses, these kids come to campus and get the opportunity to see what college is all about.

Hannah Levin
Hannah Levin ’16

“The goal of the program is to give kids an experience in which they enjoy learning,” says Hannah Levin ’16, who took the course her freshman year and has led the student team that helps run it ever since. “We try to create an environment in which they can explore a topic of their choice, and have fun while learning.”

The 15 teenager-student pairs spend three afternoons a week exploring the Williams campus, getting to know one another, and working on independent projects. One teenager wants to be a songwriter, so her Williams partner found a music professor she could work with and helped her compose an original song. Another wants to be an architect, so her Williams partner connected her to the art department and spent the month helping her build a model house.

The Pittsfield Juvenile Court’s system of alternative sentencing programs is unique in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The LIFT program is one of several across the county that brings juvenile probationers in touch with people, art, and experiences in order to help them find their way out of the system. “More than half of the kids we see are here because they finally reacted to a bully,” says Nancy Macauley, the juvenile probation officer involved with the LIFT program. “These kids are on the brink of success, and they really benefit from seeing what college is, and that they can do something else beyond high school.”

But Macauley, who also works part-time at Williams Safety and Security, says the teenagers are not the only ones who benefit from the program. “Williams students have an opportunity to go beyond the purple bubble,” she says. “They get a brief jolt of reality, and it opens them up. ”

Audrey Thomas ’17, who took the course several years ago and is now part of the student organizing team, says that LIFT forced her to think about life outside her comfort zone. “I realized that the world isn’t always like where I grew up,” she says. “The connection I made with my partner gave me confidence in my ability to navigate other complex relationships in the future.”

LIFT was started by Alexa Lutchin ’11 when she was a student, and she passed it on to other student leaders when she graduated. Levin plans to hand the reins over to Thomas and Marissa Shapiro ’18 when she graduates this spring. “The program is growing,” says Levin, a political economy major who hopes to go into teaching after she graduates. “For the first time we heard about kids in Pittsfield asking to be part of LIFT, and we had more Williams students sign up this year than we could accommodate.”

“The Williams students who take the LIFT Winter Study are changed by the experience,” says LIFT faculty adviser and professor of political science Cheryl Shanks. “They remember it for the rest of their lives.”

Photo credit: Luke Madden