March 29, 2010

Julie Kohn

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Julie Kohn was considering ideas for her Girl Scout Gold Award project in 2007 when she found out one of her childhood friends had dropped out of high school.

Growing up in Allendale, N.J., outside New York City, Kohn took for granted that she and just about everyone she knew would pursue a college degree.

"All around me were very educated people in the suburbs of New York, but I didn't think of all the people who don't get their high school diplomas," Kohn recalled recently.

So Kohn set out to start a general education diploma tutoring service, with her childhood friend as her first client. The program soon expanded to about a dozen tutors giving one-on-one help to GED candidates near her hometown. This past fall, Kohn, now a sophomore at Bucknell University, brought the program to the Susquehanna Valley. The program pairs individuals in low-income housing neighborhoods and the surrounding Lewisburg community with college students and professors.

A chemical engineering major involved in band, choir, pep band and a Harry Potter-inspired club called Dumbledore's Army, Kohn coordinates the tutoring program, called PROGRESS or Providing Resources for GED and Returning Education Students.

Meeting needs
Each client is given a book to help them study for the two-day GED test and personalized tutoring sessions, usually at their home. Many of the clients, who range in ages from 17 to 67, are single mothers who dropped out of school because of family issues or job challenges. Most need help with English as a second language and with basic math. One asked for help applying for a driver's license.

"The 67-year-old woman had not studied from a text book for 50 years," Kohn said. "A lot of them are looking for personal accomplishment or a salary increase."

One of the challenges of the tutoring program is continuity. Many of those being tutored move frequently, so Kohn asks that they make a $20 deposit on their textbooks so the books can be used for others. Sometimes, the tutors have to work with the GED candidates to help them form better study habits.

"You sometimes have to tell them to turn off the television while they are studying," Kohn said. "But a lot of students are in their 40s and 50s and are a lot more motivated."

One-on-one training
Pennsylvania has free GED tutoring, but the classes are large and don't provide one-on-one teaching, Kohn said.

"Everyone is at different levels. You can't bring your children, and it is hard for a lot of people to get there, especially if they work at night," she said. "A lot of times, the students don't have licenses or cars."

Morgan Keller, a junior education major, tutored a local woman last fall after one of her professors alerted her to the program. The woman had dropped out of high school when she became pregnant.

"She wanted to set a good example for her children," Keller said. "The main parts of the GED test are reading, writing and math, and she did not speak standard English, so she didn't realize she was making mistakes. She had never written an essay. I taught her how to write a five-paragraph essay and she came back the next week and had done it. That felt really good."

When Kohn began the program in New Jersey, Pearson Education, a local publishing company, gave Kohn 30 GED tutoring books to test in her program. She now uses a different book published by McGraw-Hill.

Kohn recently was awarded $180 for the program materials from Students Serve, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that gives small grants to college students to help them make a difference in their communities.

Students Serve
Angela Perkey, founder and executive director of the organization, said Kohn was among seven grant recipients.

"Julie's application stood out because of her experience with tutoring for the GED previously, her strong academic background and her passion for the students," Perkey said. "College students from Bucknell will be doing the tutoring. It affects not only the individuals taking the GED, but students at Bucknell will have the opportunity to teach and mentor adults."

Perkey started Students Serve in 2006 as a student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., as a way to help her fellow students put their ideas into action. Perkey said she saw many ideas stall because students lacked basic funding to execute them. She now works as a full-time business analyst but continues to serve as executive director of the organization.

For more information about the GED tutoring at Bucknell, contact Julie Kohn at

Contact: Division of Communications