A lot can change in 50 years.
When the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation, or Grant, began in 1953, it consisted of a few tie-clad Yalies teaching Latin to New Haven public school students in a small Chapel Street office. These days, the University’s oldest educational outreach program pairs 10 Yale undergraduates with 60 local middle schoolers for a summer of enrichment and mentoring.
But despite its structural changes, those involved with Grant say the program has retained what made it significant in the first place — a commitment to creating meaningful relationships between Yale students and New Haven students.
“Grant was the first time when one student said ‘Hey, let’s do something for the community,’” program alumna Janna Wagner ’95 said. “It was the beginning of a more positive town-gown relationship. Small things matter; those individual relationships with people are how we change peoples’ perception of Yalies and of townies.”
On Saturday, nearly 100 Grant alumni — both teachers and students — gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a program many be credited not only with changing the face of community outreach at Yale, but also with influencing the course of participants’ lives.
Looking back, Wagner said her experience at the “New Haven version of nerd camp” made her dreams of success “a little bit more tangible.”
“Grant was powerful because it introduced me to a community and a world that I didn’t know — and in that exposure, I learned that maybe I wanted part of that,” she said.
After spending two summers at Grant, Wagner eventually went on to Yale and then to found All Our Kin, a New Haven workforce development program for low-income women. Today, Wagner is a Grant board member along with some other former Grant students, many of whom have similar success stories.
But the program’s impact is not limited to its students. Billie Gastic ’98 was an economics major when she saw a flier asking students to apply to teach with Grant. She taught math over the summer and said it “changed the course of [her] life.”
“I started off on Wall Street and now I’m pursuing a Ph.D. in education,” she said. “[Grant] made all the difference for me — it allowed me to find out what I want to do with my life.”
Gastic said nearly 80 percent of Grant teacher alumni choose a career in public service or education. One of these is Christiana Soares Jones ’93, who planned on doing graduate work in biochemistry before Grant convinced her to become a teacher. Now chairperson of Grant’s Board of Directors, Soares Jones said the program’s main benefit to Yale is that it provides an opportunity for students to actually teach.
“It’s one thing to tutor, but it’s another thing to teach a classroom and come up with a curriculum,” she said.
Grant students — sixth- through ninth-graders from local middle schools — take one English class, one math class and one elective every day for six weeks. Rita Fleming ’04, Grant’s undergraduate student director, said the intense nature of the program gives both students and teachers a greater chance to bond with each other.
“I got to know all of the kids really well,” Fleming said. “They have all these insecurities and they’re changing, trying to be cool. They’re funny and fun and so much smarter than people give them credit for.”
Fleming said the program’s strengths lie in the long-term relationships it helps form. As evident by the large turnout at Saturday’s reunion, Grant alumni keep in touch with each other and believe in the program’s continued relevance.
“There will always be students in need, but Grant always rises to the occasion,” Gastic said. “Clearly, after 50 years, it knows how to withstand the test of time.”