I am the co-founder of College Students for Enrichment in Secondary Schools, an organization that brings Harvard students to New York City to run a series of micro-courses on eclectic subjects for 7th-9th graders. (CSESS is supported by Repair the World and the BYFI Alumni Venture Fund). Here is our story:

My Jewish high school extolled two virtues above all others: love of learning for its own sake (Torah lishmah) and a life of service to others. These values in particular, which closely matched the ideals instilled from early childhood by my secular parents, helped me feel at home within the Jewish community when I sought it out in my teenage years – and have continued to inform my relationship with Judaism and the Jewish community ever since.

Love of learning for its own sake always came easily to me—expertly nourished by parents, teachers and friends, my delight in books lit my path through high school, four happy years in college and into graduate school. While I generally enjoyed the standard coursework—English and History especially—it was the unusual classes that broadened my horizons the most. I took Psychology in eleventh grade, and Music Theory in twelfth, and after each one I was blessed with the exquisite realization that I would never see the world the same way again.

The issue of service to others was the greater challenge. In part, I felt as though my intellectual enthusiasm actually made service more difficult. I felt that it set me apart, made it more difficult to connect with people who didn’t share my interests. Buried in coursework and surrounded by likeminded friends at Harvard, the real world of people to serve seemed far away. I wanted to contribute, to give back to a world that had showered so many blessings upon me, but I didn’t know how.

A year into graduate study in the delightfully arcane field of classical Arabic poetry, I found that the light had gone out. I was frustrated with my work, frustrated with my life, and quite certain that my research couldn’t possibly matter to anyone. Then a professor asked me to TA his Islamic Law course, and I agreed. Suddenly, I had a reason to get up in the morning—a class of students to whom it mattered that I come to class well-prepared and focused, ready to answer their questions and help them make sense of the material. My studies acquired new meaning—through the lens of teaching, they were transformed from a private, often isolating preoccupation into a gift that could and should be shared. I resolved upon a career as an educator.

In a sense, the creation of CSESS arose from a serendipitous confluence of events, chief among them Harvard’s change of schedule and the creation of a “January term,” during which (for the moment) minimal programming is offered and most students aren’t permitted to live on campus. As my undergraduate friends and I brainstormed possible activities that would enable them to spend their January term doing something interesting and useful, we realized that they might spend the time teaching younger students – harnessing their love of learning into an opportunity for service.

Starting this winter, CSESS’ short-term after school courses aim to introduce middle school students to a broad variety of academic subjects typically not covered before college. Two weeks isn’t enough time to teach any subject in real depth; however, it is long enough to introduce students to a broad array of topics that are rarely offered before college: music theory… psychology… Arabic literature… and a host of others. The teachers, Harvard undergraduates, will be given an opportunity to share their passions with others, communicate a fierce and fearless curiosity to their students and open a few tiny windows into a world that is richer and stranger than we can possibly imagine. And the students will hopefully be inspired to learn more. If CSESS can combine a love of learning and service to others, we will have succeeded.

CSESS is currently seeking partner middle schools, public or private, in the New York metropolitan area. For more information, visit our website or contact me at Elisabeth Cohen.