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Helping With the ACT at Ottawa Hills
April 4, 2006

A Calvin College junior biology student has created a new tutoring program that helps local high school students prepare for the ACT test.

Nathan Tonlaar, a native of Tamale, Ghana, launched a program in February which pairs Calvin students from such departments as English, biology, chemistry, physics and math with juniors and seniors at Ottawa Hills High School.

The student pairs meet twice a week to prepare for the ACT test, which the high school students will take on April 8.

Tonlaar says his tutoring idea was a moment of inspiration, one which came to him as he stood in a hallway at Calvin looking at an ACT poster.

"It had ACT on it, and it had pictures of minority kids on it," he remembers. "It came to my mind that there were people out there who didn't have the opportunity to take the test and to prepare for college."

Soon after he learned from a friend that Ottawa Hills High School had no formal program to train students to take the ACT.

Tonlaar had just been chosen as the coordinator for service-learning for the natural sciences at Calvin.

"A huge part of the ACT is the science and mathematics section," he says. "I thought this was a good way of involving science and mathematics students from Calvin in service-learning, and it would benefit kids who take the ACT — so I thought that was a cool way to do it."

Jeff Bouman, director of Calvin’s service-learning center and Tonlaar’s boss, was enthusiastic about the tutoring idea, and he and Tonlaar got in touch with the Ottawa Hills principal.

"She said that was something that was very much needed," Bouman recalls. "She asked me what it was going to cost, and I said, Nothing. So she was right on board."

Tonlaar then met with the heads of Calvin's English, biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics departments, who pledged their support in finding able tutors for the effort.

Initially 18 Ottawa Hills students signed up for tutoring. Once the program got rolling, more people signed on. Currently there are 27 students involved.

The Calvin students who participate in the tutoring program receive cross-cultural engagement (CCE) credits for their work (the CCE credit is part of Calvin’s core requirement).

Bouman says that Tonlaar, who plans to study medicine after graduation, has established a long track record of balancing service-learning and research opportunities with his academic load. Prior to his role as natural sciences coordinator, Tonlaar coordinated the federal work study community service program, studied infant mortality rates in Kent County, performed adult stem cell research with Calvin biology professor David De Heer and even found time to participate in Rangeela (Calvin's annual international student variety show) and Airband (a student lip-synching concert).

"Nathan has modeled the kind of well-rounded, kingdom-citizen we are trying to help nurture at Calvin," Bouman says. "He is well-balanced academically, spiritually, socially and civically. For a top-notch pre-med student from Ghana to be as involved as Nathan has been with meaningful extracurricular activities is nothing short of breathtaking, and I am deeply grateful for his presence at Calvin."

Tonlaar says he is just happy that the program actually came together.

"It feels good to actually have it succeed and know that you're making a difference," he says.

~written by media relations staff writer Myrna Anderson