By Dyana Smolen
Contributing writer for Post Standard
As a LaFayette Junior-Senior High School student, Kakwireiosta (pronounced Gog-we-lay-osta) Hall, stood out.
“She was a leader,” reflects Principal Paula Cowling. “She has a gentle yet forceful way.”
Now at 25, Hall is using those leadership skills and benefiting her alma mater at the same time.
In January 2007, Hall went to work for Cornell University, where she presently serves as residence hall director for Akwe:kon (pronounced “a-gway’-go”), a residence and community center that celebrates American Indian heritage.
Part of Hall’s role is to conduct programming with students in the university’s American Indian program.
“One of my main objectives was to get Cornell students connected to Native communities and to have experiences in those places,” Hall said.
As she thought about her prior work as a tutor for homebound Onondaga Nation students, Hall came up with an idea for a tutoring program connecting high school and college students.
Last spring, she began discussing the idea with colleagues at Cornell. By summer, she had presented the idea to Cowling and Danielle Rourke, LaFayette Native American liaison and school counselor.
Both Rourke and Cowling were fans of the program from the beginning.
“I enthusiastically endorsed it,” Cowling said. “She built it and they came. We’ve tried different after-school tutorial programs and it was ‘sometimes yes, sometimes no’ and this seems to be the right person, the right time, the right approach. It’s especially gratifying that (Hall) is a graduate and she gives back to our community. That’s wonderful.”
Prior to the program’s official start in October, LaFaytte students got an opportunity to tour Cornell and have lunch with faculty.
“A lot of our kids need that kind of exposure,” Rourke said. “It was a real informal way of students seeing what’s available.”
When the program began, the LaFayette students got a chance to further that connection.
Every Wednesday, a group of volunteers from Cornell’s American Indian Program traveled to LaFayette, where they engaged with the students for two hours after school.
American Indian students in grades nine through 12 were invited, but not mandated, to join the sessions, which also featured snacks and beverages and a casual atmosphere.
Keeping the program relaxed yet consistent made the program more appealing to the students, Rourke said.
“They like to have somewhere to go where they can have the extra help if they need it,” Rourke said. “A lot of kids need more time to get their work done and they’ll come here, even the ones that aren’t failing. It’s also for the kids who are doing well.”
During the sessions the high school students were allowed, even encouraged, to socialize with their tutors.
“It’s organized in hopes that the high school students can connect with someone to build relationships, with the goal of becoming interested in college and have someone to answer their questions,” Hall said.
The mentoring component, she noted, is especially important.
“As a Native person, you’re dealing with different dynamics than mainstream people would,” said Hall, a Mohawk/Cherokee. “There aren’t many of us, so it’s not like you can look on TV or wherever and understand their lifeline and how they got from one place to the next. The students can see themselves in our tutors, hopefully.”
The LaFayette school district has about a 21 percent American Indian enrollment, drawing from the Onondaga Nation.
Some, but not all, of the Cornell tutors are American Indian.
Sophomore Aviva Horowitz, a Cayuga, consistently participated in the program.
“I really like meeting them and getting a feel for their personalities,” Horowitz said of the LaFayette students. “A lot of them I consider my friends now. A lot of times I would go and they wouldn’t need my help and I would just talk with them.”
It is this friendly, casual atmosphere that 10th-grader Calvin Thomas, an Onondaga, found appealing. But he especially appreciated the extra help.
“I have trouble getting my homework done, mainly math,” he said. “It’s just not my subject. I get stuck and there’s not anyone to help me (at home). That’s why the tutoring helps.”
Hall’s tutoring program wasn’t just a hit with the LaFayette students. Eleventh-grader Whitley Benedict’s mom was so happy her daughter was involved she threw in some incentives of her own.
“My mom rewarded me for staying after and going to tutoring,” Benedict said. “I got new sneakers and money sometimes and she picks me up at school. She said, ‘If you’re trying, I’ll come pick you up.’ ”
“Maybe the ultimate reward is that you pass the class,” interjected Rourke.
Benedict smiled and laughed in agreement.
The tutoring program began in October as a trial run, Hall said. Now that the semester is over, she has to sit down with Cornell American Indian Program staff to see if it can become a long-term reality.
“The general response has been positive,” she said. “It looks like something we’d like to continue, but I can’t confirm yet. If we are able to go through and find it to be successful and beneficial on both ends, I think it’s worthwhile.”