Despite difficulties in organization and logistics encountered after its launch last year, the Big Sibs program, the service project of the Class of 2016, will be continued this year under a different structure with lower participation. While roughly 300 students expressed interest in the program when it was first presented, around 120 students are currently participating.
According to Sofia Gomez ’16, this year’s Big Sibs co-chair and a member of last year’s executive board, the new structure will do away with the one-on-one mentorshipand instead continue as a group interaction, with groups of Princeton students writing to a class of students in the City Invincible Charter School in Camden, N.J.
Gomez explained that the change was necessary after the logistical difficulties encountered under the old system. “Last year, it didn’t end up working out because City Invincible, being a charter school, didn’t have the technological access they thought they would and they didn’t have the computers they thought they would. So it just ended up being complicated, and we were never able to actually have the email relationships,” she said.
Aside from the weekly letters, Gomez explained that Princeton students would be visiting the students at City Invincible on most Saturdays so that each group of Princetonians can interact personally with their assigned class of Little Sibs. In addition, the Little Sibs will come to Princeton one Saturday to tour and explore the campus.
Gomez added that the new system would also help achieve the goals of the program more easily and facilitate student involvement without demanding as much commitment.
“The reason we switched to the group dynamic was because we came to realize that people aren’t going to go every single Saturday, and so they won’t be seeing their Little Sibs consistently. And what we’re trying to really do is introduce a sense of consistency for these kids. And so with the weekly letters, there is that consistency, but without the weekly visits and personal contact, it won’t be so intense of a one-on-one relationship.”
Alex Cuadrado ’16, another member of the Big Sibs executive board, explained that, while the project is currently funded entirely by the Class of 2016 Class Council, the Council plans to cut funding in the future so that the program can achieve self-sustainability. He went on to explain further that the board was already looking at potential other sources of funding.
The Class Council launched “Big Sibs” during the last school year, but the release was marred by many problems and delays.
“There were so many problems that we didn’t expect to happen and so many things we didn’t consider,” Mason Williams ’16, last year’s co-chair of the Big Sibs program, explained. “It was so stressful for me and everyone on the board, and then with Class Council, there was so much clashing. I had to play peacemaker, and I was like, ‘You know, guys, it’s okay, Class Council can sit in on our meetings; this is their baby; they started this.’
"But then you had some people who said, ‘No, we don’t want them here; this is too confusing; there are too many cooks in the kitchen,’ which there obviously were. But they were there originally, they had the original mission and ideas and vision, and they were a great resource because they set everything up, so you don’t just get rid of them entirely. The whole thing was just really complicated.”
Williams went on to clarify that he wasn’t personally involved with the program anymore, since the Class Council decided to reorganize the program last summer.
Justin Ziegler ’16, the president of the Class of 2016 Class Council, explained why the board was restructured.
“We realized that with 10 people on the board, it was kind of too many, so we definitely wanted to have less this year,” he said, adding that the Class Council had created a charter that clearly identified the roles of each member this year.
Williams explained that there had been a good deal of confusion in the board’s early stages over the members’ roles.
“There was so much time spent trying to figure out, ‘Okay, what is Class Council’s role now? What are people’s positions, and what are we gonna have them do?’ ” Williams said.
Gomez said that around 120 Princeton students signed up this year, attributing the drop in participation to the fact that last year, as freshmen, the class presumably had fewer commitments. Later on, with new commitments, there was less time to focus on the project.
“Some people were really only in it because it looks good on a resume,” Williams added. “So when the level of commitment required started to go up, they backed out.”
He added that the delay in setting up the program may have contributed to the decline.
“There was a lot of hype lost because there was so much time spent figuring out the new infrastructure and all. I think a lot of people just forgot about it, and with a project like this, you need people to be reminded and to be excited,” Williams said.
Despite the past year’s difficulties, both Williams and Gomez agreed that the program was well received by Princeton students and City Invincible kids alike.
“Everyone was just really happy about the project. In fact, when we were leaving City Invincible after the first Saturday, there was a girl crying because she didn’t want us to leave. They definitely loved it, and they wanted to continue,” Williams said.
Brianne Steakelum, the charter school’s Civic Engagement Leader, emphasized the program’s impact on the kids.
“The Big Sibs were extremely enthusiastic, and that in turn made the Little Sibs excited and enthusiastic to come in on Saturday, which is huge. They got really excited to learn their Big Sibs’ names and write letters to them and things like that,” Steakelum said, explaining that the Big Sibs had planted a community garden and done some arts-and-crafts activities with the Little Sibs.
She added that she really admired the commitment Princeton students have shown.
“I am completely overwhelmed and humbled by the number of students who would dedicate their time to the Little Sibs. I couldn’t believe how many college kids would take time out of a Saturday to hang out with kids from our school,” she said.
Ziegler explained that this year’s program would include new skills-based learning initiatives in areas such as reading and math.
“We want to really help these kids and turn college from a dream into something that is expected, and we know that making this kind of impact at a young age is really important,” Ziegler said.
He added that the board members are discussing the sustainability of the project, including what will happen after the Class of 2016 graduates.
“Nothing is set yet, but we’ve definitely been talking about a lot of things. It’s extremely important that once you enter into someone's life, you stay there, and we’re trying to figure out ways to do that. I think that’s vital,” he said.