In 2004, Greg Overholt, a second-year student in business and computer science at Wilfrid Laurier University, had an idea for broadening access to early education in developing countries. His idea was simple: offer Canadian students in large courses a chance to consolidate their learning in sessions with volunteer tutors. The students would pay a fee for the tutoring service, with the money going towards a charitable organization that would direct educational and development projects overseas.
That organization, Students Offering Support, now has 26 chapters across North America and has raised nearly $1 million to provide buildings for children’s schooling and recreation in rural Central and South America. Mr. Overholt is its executive director.
When midterm or final exams are looming, students get together with a tutor who has recently taken that course and can help them prepare. The students pay about $20 for a two-and-a-half-hour session. The tutors volunteer “because they love it and they want to raise money for students in other parts of the world,” says Mr. Overholt. This year alone, volunteers at 27 Canadian universities raised more than $300,000 by helping 10,000 of their peers improve their performance on exams.
Laura Allan, a business professor at Laurier and a member of the SOS board of directors, coordinates a first-year course that has 2,000 students. She says the peer support provided by SOS “dovetails perfectly” with the classes and is valuable precisely because it is not supplied by the university. “It doesn’t replace us, it supports us.”
Before the tutoring sessions begin, SOS sparks philanthropic impulses by showing students a one-minute video about the development projects. “They’re there because they want to raise their marks,” says Mr. Overholt, “but they get exposure to the power of a grass-roots student movement.”
Some of the students go on to register for two-week hands-on site visits in May or August. This year SOS is sending 360 students to communities around Latin America to help build classrooms, teacher housing, community centres, communal gardens and water projects. Last year some of them helped erect a bridge in a rural area of Nicaragua where children were prevented from crossing a river to get to school in the rainy season. The students pay their own airfare, live in the community and work with local foremen and engineers.
“It changes their lives,” says Ms. Allan.