There’s a scene unfolding outside Helen Raica-Klotz’s office on the second floor of SVSU’s Zahnow Library. She peeks out her glass wall overlooking The Diane Boehm Writing Center, where for five years she has served as director of the program aimed at helping students with written communication. More than a dozen students and student-tutors are talking at tables scattered throughout the exterior room on a Thursday afternoon. From her vantage point, Raica-Klotz can’t hear them, but she doesn’t need her ears to know what’s underway.
“At this moment,” Raica-Klotz says, pointing through the glass and into the adjacent room, “there are people having conversations about all sorts of things. They are shaping those conversations into an idea, then turning those ideas into words. This happens repeatedly, day after day. It’s this cacophony of sound — this lovely articulation of ideas — that results in the student and the student-tutor learning something together. Really, some of the most active learning happening on campus is happening right here, right now. And that kind of learning carries out into the community as well.”
“Out into the community” is an understatement when describing the Writing Center’s growing influence since its founding more than 20 years ago. What began as a seedling of an idea sprouted branches that today touch the university’s surrounding communities, other writing centers across the nation and educational institutions on the other side of the planet. Much of the fruit borne by these branches launched careers and changed lives, all to great effect.
The scene underway next to Raica-Klotz’s office is simply where the soil nourishes the root. And the ground is fertile these days.
Diane Boehm returns to SVSU at least once a year to visit former colleagues at the center she founded. Her whole life once seemed to be leading her toward such an endeavor.
Raised as the oldest child of six siblings on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, Boehm was a self-proclaimed “reading addict” from the time she entered school.
“I loved that ability of a writer to get into your emotions and take you to a place you haven’t been before,” says Boehm, who retired from SVSU in 2013 and now lives in Libertyville, Illinois.
By the sixth grade, she wanted others to share in her wonder. During her one-room schoolhouse days, she would spend time tutoring a classmate with a learning disability.
“I still remember the feeling I had, sitting with him and helping him,” she says. “It taught me a certain kind of empathy for people who needed help from others.”
The experience influenced her decision to pursue a career in education. She accepted an assignment to create what today is the Writing Center at SVSU shortly after she joined the university as an adjunct English instructor. The challenge was issued by Robert Yien, SVSU’s vice president for Academic Affairs from 1978 to 2005. Yien had developed the idea of creating a writing program at the university some years before Boehm was hired in 1995.
The program’s first iteration was underwhelming by today’s standards. Boehm and a colleague tutored students with only two chairs, a dictionary and a desk situated in a corner hallway on Wickes Hall’s first floor. Within a year, Boehm secured an enclosed room in what is today Cardinal Café, near Zahnow Library. It was the first of several moves before the center settled into its current space in winter 2017.
The program grew substantially over the years and added workshops and writing contests to its tutoring services. What began as a small operation now conducts some 4,000-plus individual sessions with students on campus each year. And those clients give rave reviews. After each session, attendees are asked to fill out a performance questionnaire. Last year, 99 percent of those surveys indicated students rated the experience as “excellent/good” — the best answers available on the questionnaire.
“Not too bad, right?” Raica-Klotz says with a smile and a hint of pride when discussing the glowing feedback.
The Writing Center’s impact has expanded past SVSU’s campus and its influence has extended beyond the students seeking support there. In fact, many of its student-tutors say their time working on the center’s community-based programs offered some of the most rewarding learning experiences of their lives.
Sam Geffert knows what people are thinking when she tells them she leads creative writing workshops with convicts.
“But I feel a little more anxiety walking into a high school to student-teach because you really have to fight for their attention,” says Geffert, an English education and English literature double major who works as a student-tutor at the Writing Center.
For two years, the Farmington Hills native has volunteered to participate in the Writing Center’s 10-week workshop program for individuals incarcerated at the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland.
“It’s a great classroom environment,” Geffert says of the 90-minute sessions, which feature between six to 12 men housed at the facility. “Once you engage with them, they start generating content together and showing support for each other’s work. They’re grateful for us being there.”
The Saginaw Correctional Facility program was one of many Writing Center-managed initiatives that supported individuals outside of campus for years.
In December 2018, a new SVSU office was created to bring those initiatives and the university’s other writing-related community initiatives — including the Triennial Theodore Roethke Poetry and Arts Festival as well as The Saginaw Bay Writing Project — under one umbrella. The newly established Center for Community Writing shares the same staff and office space as The Writing Center, making them almost indistinguishable operations.
Raica-Klotz hopes the new initiative eventually will move into real estate outside of campus to develop its programs. Still, plenty of those Center for Community Writing programs founded by The Writing Center surpassed expectations in their development, she says. Among those is an initiative that offers services to two neighboring cities.
The concept of hosting Writing Center-style sessions for individuals outside of campus was introduced to Raica-Klotz by Chris Giroux, the Writing Center’s assistant director and an SVSU associate professor of English, after he learned about a similar initiative established in Salt Lake City.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m not sure we can pull this off here,’ when he first told me about it,” Raica-Klotz says. “I brought the ideas to my tutors, and to their credit, they said, ‘Oh, yes. We can do that.’”
Raica-Klotz and her staff worked to secure sponsors for the initiative. The Dow Corning Foundation, Saginaw Community Foundation and the Public Libraries of Saginaw stepped up. In October 2015, the Saginaw Community Writing Center opened at Butman-Fish Branch Library in Saginaw.
It was the first on-site community writing center in the state. Two days a month, student-tutors offer evening workshops to residents, free of charge. Tutors help people craft résumés and cover letters, draft short stories and poems, as well as research and write their family histories.
The community writing center proved popular enough that Raica-Klotz continued the concept with the Bay Community Writing Center, which opened in fall 2017 at the Alice and Jack Wirt Public Library in Bay City. The new center was supported by the Community Initiative Fund and the Youth Advisory Fund at the Bay Area Community Foundation.
Collectively, the two community centers have worked with over 500 people to date.
Another community writing center, housed in Saginaw Township’s Heritage High School, opened in fall 2018.
Over the years, SVSU’s Writing Center branched out in other ways. Giroux created “Still Life: A Community Literary Arts Journal,” which is an annual publication featuring poetry and photography from SVSU students and visitors of the community centers in Bay City and Saginaw. Student-tutors regularly present writing center-related research while attending conferences across the globe. And an agreement with Shikoku University, an SVSU sister school in Japan, sends student-tutors there to provide Writing Center services. Geffert spent summer 2015 at Shikoku University as part of the exchange program.
“It was a culture shock at first, but it was a perfect fit for what I wanted to go into,” the prospective teacher says.
“Overcoming language barriers is a huge challenge, and it allowed me to apply so many of the things I was learning at SVSU.”
The lessons learned by SVSU Writing Center student-tutors was a common theme of “Centered: Writing Center Tutors Reflect,” a 168-page hardcover book published in 2013 that featured 53 testimonials from the 169 students who served as tutors from 1996 to 2013.
Stuart Chipman-Bergsma provided one of those testimonials. He worked in the Writing Center from 2008 until he graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree as a sociology and Spanish double major. Since then, he has graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and began work as an associate attorney for Lennon, Miller, O’Connor & Bartosiewicz, PLC in Kalamazoo.
Chipman-Bergsma says his experience as a student-tutor sharpened his ability to refine and communicate ideas. Those are tools that come in handy when participating in the American justice system.
“The training and the practice that I received in my seven semesters as a tutor — all those hours spent in the Writing Center discussing hard ideas with really bright and thoughtful people — that’s the part that allows me to walk into a courtroom and believe that, whether the judge rules for me or against me, I put the best argument I could in front of the court,” he says. “When I was at The Writing Center, I probably did not fully appreciate how formative that experience was. I do now. And I’m grateful.”
Boehm and Raica-Klotz say training sessions, conference trips and day-to-day interactions create a camaraderie among each new class of Writing Center student-tutors. And staff members empower the student-employees to find ways to shape the Writing Center’s future.
Recently, The Boehm Writing Center Tutor Service Award was founded to award up to $500 to student-tutors pursuing research or service projects aimed at developing The Writing Center.
“The tutors become so committed to the work and grow exponentially even as they assist their peers,” Boehm says. “It’s a wonderful thing to see.”
It’s a wonderful thing Raica-Klotz often enjoys watching unfold outside her office door.
“This is really hard, unique work that occurs here at the Writing Center,” she says, “and people who have done that work appreciate others who have done that work. As a result, there’s a real bond of shared understanding and sense of purpose created here.”