Every Friday at 3 p.m., after the school bell signals the end of the school day, a group of about 30 middle school students at local Fremont Academy makes its way to the cafeteria. The students are not ready to go home yet, though — they stay for Pomona Partners.
Pomona Partners is the College’s longest-running community engagement program, founded in 1993 by a couple of Pomona College students who wanted to have a greater impact on the city of Pomona, just next door to Claremont. The program continues today through the Draper Center for Community Partnerships, with more than a dozen Pomona College students volunteering every semester to host a series of activities and experiences with seventh and eighth graders.
“When I was looking at colleges, I was looking at schools that had connections to the communities around them,” says Isaac Prestwich ’20, one of the program coordinators at Pomona College. “When I was considering Pomona, the Draper Center was important to me.”
Majoring in gender and women’s studies, Prestwich plans to become a teacher and enjoys working with youth in a non-academic setting like Pomona Partners.
The program coordinators, Prestwich and Katheryn Kornegay ’20, work with other Pomona volunteers or “partners” to develop a theme for the year. This academic year, the focus is on critical environmental justice. Students also engage in conversations on other topics, like student activism as a result of school shootings. They also enjoy on-campus activities like games, videos, acting workshops, one-on-one interactions, group interactions and two annual field trips, one during the spring semester to the Pomona College campus.
“The biggest thing we touch on is that it’s a non-academic program – we come together mutually, there’s mentoring, but it benefits both the partners and the students – everyone is learning and growing,” explains Kornegay, a physics major who is plans to go to graduate school in the future. “Self-empowerment is what Pomona Partners is about, it’s about learning to express yourself, to communicate with your friends and the community around you.”
Although arts and crafts and other games might seem frivolous to some, Prestwich explains that these activities help build community among the Fremont students and Pomona College partners.
The bonds built between the middle schoolers and college partners are strong, says Fremont teacher Tommie Carrillo, who has coordinated the program at his school for the past 22 years.
He adds that after every winter break, when Fremont students return to campus, they eagerly await the return of their college partners who have a much longer vacation (Pomona College students have a four-week winter break). “They’re asking me for them. ‘When’s so and so returning? When are we starting again?’ They bond with them and that’s important.”
In the spring, says Carrillo, the students take a field trip to Pomona College – a transformative experience for many of them. “We tell them they gotta go to college – they know about higher education, but they really have no idea until they visit the College and see the students there, from different nationalities and cultures. That’s when they see what college is and why they should work towards that.”
Fremont is part of the Pomona Unified School District that serves a predominantly low-income and Latino student body. The connection between Fremont and the College goes as far back as 1993, the year that Pomona Partners was founded under Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) president Lorig Charkoudian ’95 and vice president Hannah Temple ’95.
Charkoudian advocated for stronger community engagement experiences for students and used her convocation speech that year to urge students to give back. The first set of program coordinators, Meredith Dodson ’96 and Maury Mendenhall ’96, got it going. As the years progressed, the program remained a popular volunteer opportunity for Pomona College students who wanted to leave their Claremont campus and travel into the heart of the city of Pomona.
“This program has connected students and alums to the community for many years. It has been part of the Draper Center foundation and transformation which has allowed for other programs such as Next Level, LEGS (Leadership and Engagement in Gender & Sexuality) to exist,” says Stephanie Rios, assistant director of educational outreach at the Draper Center. “I’m proud of the commitment and dedication our student coordinators and volunteers have with the students of Fremont Academy. Every Friday, I look forward to seeing them after their session because they come back with a contagious smile and energy.”
“The coordinators don’t get enough credit,” says Carrillo about the dedication of the college students over the generations. He notes the time spent and the partners’ understanding of both the kids’ need to get out of the classroom and the importance of getting them to participate in games they haven’t played before.
“[Pomona Partners volunteers] make good connections with our kids and it excites our kids to see them.”