Fordham students and Bronx elementary school children have been reading books together every week since September, thanks to a virtual literacy initiative created by a University employee and alumna. 

“The children get to have a one-on-one experience, practice their reading skills, and build a bond with somebody who’s different and can be a role model for them,” said Olga Baez, executive secretary in Fordham College at Lincoln Center’s residential life office and founder of the Bronx-based nonprofit StriveHigher Inc., which provides educational experiences to underserved students. 

A little girl holds a book in front of an open laptop.
Lily Aponte reads a book over Zoom.

StriveHigher’s new virtual reading program matches Bronx elementary schoolersfrom kindergarten to third gradewith student volunteers from Cristo Rey High School and nearby colleges, including Fordham. There are nearly 80 student-volunteer pairs in the weekly reading program, which is free for everyone involved. Around 30 Fordham undergraduates and MBA students from the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses are currently “reading buddies,” said Baez. 

After hearing stories about students falling behind in school during the COVID-19 pandemic, Baez said she wanted to do something to help. She saw celebrities and libraries posting videos of themselves reading books to children on Instagram and was inspired to put her own twist on the trend with her nonprofit, StriveHigher. Baez recruited students from Fordham with the help of Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning, Campus Ministry, and the Gabelli School of Business. Campus Ministry also donated 50 books that were shipped to children across the Bronx. 

“The kids are always excited. They’re practicing their reading, and the students help them if they can’t pronounce a word,” Baez said. “They’re building bonds with someone who’s bringing them joy.” 

Lily and Stella: Reading Buddies in the Bronx

Seven-year-old Lily was among the first to join the program. 

“I like reading buddies because I get to learn how to read and get better at reading, and I also like it because I can ask Stella any questions and I can ask her for any books,” Lily, a third grader who reads level T books, said in a phone call. 

On Thursday evenings, Lily and her reading buddy, Stella Pandis, read a book to each other over Zoom. Many of the stories in Lily’s bookshelf focus on female empowerment and feature people of color, said her mother, Crystal, who often reads with Lily, along with her husband. One example is Antiracist Baby (Kokila, 2020), by National Book Award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi.

“The title itself was shocking to me because I never had books like this when I was little,” said Pandis, a senior political science student at Fordham College at Lincoln Center. “I learn when Lily reads to me, honestly.” 

A split screen of a girl and a young woman; the latter holds a book and smiles.
Lily Aponte and her Fordham reading buddy, Stella Pandis, on a Zoom call

‘I Used to Never Like to Read’

Brianna Vaca, a first-year sociology student at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, said she loves reading Don’t Touch My Hair! (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018) with second grader Sarah Castillo. 

“When I was younger, all the characters in books looked really similar. To see characters with big, frizzy hair and afros, and explaining their experience with it in children’s books—that really stood out to me,” said Vaca, who reads several books with Sarah on Tuesdays. “And [Sarah and I] both have frizzy hair.” 

Sarah’s mother, Maria Castillo, said she enrolled her daughter in the program because it sounded like a great way to engage her in reading, especially since Sarah is attending school remotely.     

“She was having a lot of problems with reading and comprehending … she could not tell you what the story was about,” said Maria. “But now, maybe because she’s doing it so much and having another person reading and explaining to her, now she’s getting there … I see [something in Sarah]that I’ve never seen before.”

Maria said her daughter was shy on camera at first. But now, she asks her “friend” to read an extra story at the end of every Zoom session. 

“I used to never like to read,” Sarah said over the phone. “[Brianna] made me like to read.”