Yale Undergraduates Organize Summer 2023 Academic Programming for New Haven Middle Schoolers through the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation

The 2023 U.S. Grant cohort poses in front of Dwight Chapel.

During the summer at Dwight Hall, students become the teachers. In this role reversal, undergraduates take on the role of a professor – choosing course topics, designing curricula, and creating daily lesson plans. Here, their students are New Haven middle schoolers and their classroom is Dwight Hall. 

Through the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation, a summer academic enrichment program, 60 sixth to ninth graders from local public and parochial schools come together for six weeks to take classes completely designed, directed, and led by Yalies. The program has served New Haven students since 1953, drawing on the dedication of undergraduates to share their interests and help students gain the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in high school and beyond. While the cost of the program is $75 for all six weeks, the program has full scholarships available to extend this opportunity to those with limited resources. This way, all students – regardless of their socioeconomic status or background – can explore their interests, discover new subjects, and connect with like-minded peers.

The program’s legacy continues through the hard work of student directors who dedicate their time and energy to organizing each year’s programming. Dylan Carlson ’24 and Chernice Mbogori ’25, the 2023 U.S. Grant Co-Directors, have been planning this summer since the beginning of the spring 2023 semester. Their involvement in leadership originated from their experiences as teachers in summer 2022, when they were both drawn in by the program’s flexibility and creativity. Dylan and Chernice are joined by a team of undergraduate teachers: Jeb Cui ’26, Chidimma Nzekwe ’26, Ethan Estrada ’25, Lyn Rodriguez ’26, and Mikayla Labissiere ’24.

Chernice emphasizes that “one of the best parts of coming in as a U.S. Grant teacher is that you get to choose what you teach.” Because undergraduate leadership is at the forefront of U.S. Grant’s methodology, Yale students exercise the full extent of their ingenuity to design classes that one could not find at any other middle school. Courses from past years include: What Would You Do: Ethics for the Modern World; Everything in the World, I Guess: The United Nations and Current Events; and What’s So Hard About Life on Earth: The Problems with Our Planet’s Habitats…and How Animals Solve Them. 

Since these core courses are taught in the morning, students have further opportunities to delve into niche interests by choosing elective classes in the afternoon. Electives are centered around the arts, hobbies, and practical skills, with options such as 13 Reasons Why You Should be Skeptical of Your Favorite TV Show and When Life Gives You Lemons, Make a Successful Lemonade Stand: How to Create Your Own Business. Other topics covered include game theory, filmmaking, and screenwriting. 

The program’s unique curriculum is not the only thing fueling students’ enthusiasm for learning. Dylan and Chernice have noticed that students are particularly motivated by the final projects they work on throughout the summer for each of their classes, which wrap up their newfound knowledge in hands-on applications of course material. Here, “they have complete and total freedom,” Chernice describes. For instance, in Dylan’s class, students are modeling a demo-democracy and writing a historical fiction around the history of a made-up country. 

“We really want to make students feel like there’s a qualitative difference between their school and U.S. Grant,” described Dylan. To achieve this aim, the program schedule has built-in non-academic enrichment activities during Purdy Time. During this daily break, students engage in physical activity, arts and crafts, or go on field trips with their cohort. Last week, students met Mayor Justin Elicker at City Hall and then played (and won!) Capture the Flag against their teachers. For next week, the U.S. Grant teachers are planning a trip to Bishop’s Orchards in addition to hosting a Talent Show and a Spelling Bee to showcase the students’ abilities. 

Students visit with Mayor Justin Elicker.

Of course, the program does not come without challenges. While all the teachers begin the summer with a six-week curriculum, that plan is rarely followed to a tee. A lesson a teacher expects to captivate their students’ attention may instead fall flat, so they have to pivot and invent an alternative on the spot. This requires becoming receptive to the students’ learning styles to redesign lessons closely tailored to their needs, thus maintaining a balance between individual and group interests. Dylan reflected on these challenges: “We have become adaptable. We have to roll with the punches. We have to be quick on our feet and be decisive.”

In this way, as much as students are learning new information, teachers are also developing their professional skill set. 

All of these efforts have paid off in creating a memorable summer experience for students and teachers alike. Dylan reflected on how “it’s been amazing to see how students have started from being a little bit withdrawn to then just flourishing while making a lot of friends here.” The social connections even transcend years – Chernice has observed “friendship pairings from last year [that] are still there.” Indeed, the program has exhibited a history of not only returning students as campers but also as teachers. Two undergraduates serving as teachers this year are former U.S. Grant students – testifying to the program’s long-term impact and ability to create lasting communities. 

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