New squash program helps at-risk children

Kelly Gulbrandson

A new program at the University will combine a relatively uncommon sport with academic work in an attempt to help at-risk students in the Minneapolis area.

Executive director John Stever, a local squash player and University kinesiology professor, said the Squash Scholars program, which met for the first time on Monday, will not only help middle school students learn the sport of squash but provide tutoring as well.

Stever said after he retired from a desk job, he wanted to find a way to give back to the community while teaching squash.

“Before I retired, I lived a normal life,” he said. “I didn’t give much of my time; now I want to devote the last third of my life to the community.”

He said he founded the Minneapolis chapter of the program after discovering other chapters across the country.

Twice a week, after their school day ends, the 12 Anne Sullivan Middle School students who signed up for the program will be bused to the University Recreation Center.

Half will receive tutoring for the first hour while the other half learns squash, Stever said. After the first hour, the groups will switch.

However, the Minneapolis chapter will differ from others because of added community service projects some Saturdays, he said.

Anne Sullivan Middle School in south Minneapolis was the school chosen for the program’s first year because of its high rate of at-risk students, many of whom are students of color and come from families of a low socio-economic status, Stever said.

He said 80 percent of Sullivan’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

English sophomore Serina Jamison, who works at the University’s Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence and directs the academic mentors, said the mentors, who also work at the center, will check with the students’ teachers weekly for updates on homework assignments.

“One-on-one mentoring lets the students know that someone else cares about them,” Jamison said.

Vinh Chung, assistant director of Minneapolis facilities within the department of recreational sports, said when Stever showed him a video of another chapter he became interested in helping.

The University Recreation Center provides the squash courts free-of-charge and hasn’t received any complaints about the group taking up too many courts, he said.

“The program fits in well since it’s during a slow time of day,” Chung said.

Computer engineering doctorate student Shilad Sen, who plays squash regularly, said he and his friends scheduled their time around the program because they knew about it in advance.

“Most squash players are a tight group, so they wouldn’t have a problem with giving up court space for a new group,” he said.

Ashu Jaiswal, one of the program instructors and a member of the University Squash

Club, said there are also four other certified squash instructors.

Jaiswal said the sport helps with overall physical fitness, and Forbes magazine recently rated squash as the No. 1 exercise sport in America.

Squash also helps students with personality development and “is a great stress reliever,” Jaiswal said.

He said once the students improve their squash skills he plans to schedule tournaments with other chapters.

While he is only bringing in students from one school this year, Stever said he plans to expand to other Minneapolis and St. Paul schools in the future.

“We plan to double our size by next year,” he said.