Books@Work Is Working!

Books@Work Is Working!

In his most recent Topics letter – a periodic communication to his followers using “old world” means: print and snail mail – President Thomas V. Chema of Hiram College shared his excitement about the progress of Books@Work:  “Like many good ideas, this is a simple one.  But it’s one I believe can grow into a national opportunity.”

At Books@Work we too are excited about this opportunity.  A program that started as a small pilot at AVI Foodsystems, with professors from Hiram College, has expanded: we have just launched our tenth seminar this week!  We are now working with four companies and five colleges. We are eager to continue to grow.  With every step, we learn and refine in pursuit of our goal: to make Books@Work available to as many people as possible through innovative partnerships with employers in multiple industries.  Like Tom, I believe that bringing high-quality literature in professor-led seminars to broader audiences gives us a chance to engage more individuals in the experience of liberal education and to change the community dialogue on critical thinking, civic engagement and ultimately college access.

Why Books@Work?

As Tom mentioned in his Topics letter, he and I worked together when I facilitated a Northeast Ohio community initiative called EducationWorks.  Funded by four regional foundations, EducationWorks engaged leaders in the community to discuss the potential for a new form of collaboration around improving educational outcomes. We had many important discussions as a group about initiatives in K-12, higher education, workforce development and especially around improving college attainment.

But my passion for the foundation of Books@Work came when I had a powerful AHA moment: as a society, we worry a lot about increasing the ~31% of the population that goes to college and reducing the ~12% that drop out of high school, but we mostly ignore the remaining ~57%.  We do very little to support the continued learning of adults who have left the education system, often without a college degree, working hard to raise their families.  The cost of sending their own children to college may be insurmountable – the likelihood of returning themselves nearly impossible.

The adult without a BA but with a high school degree (and perhaps some college classes or an associate’s degree) represents the largest portion of the American public ages 25 and older.  These are the parents of our current students and the backbone of our economy.  These are the folks who can become powerful role models for lifelong learning in their communities and their homes.  We have many important programs that help them to build their technical workplace skills.  But how can they continue to learn and grow – refine critical thinking, communication and creativity – without the cost and time commitment of returning to school?

Tom and I began this Books@Work journey together through the initial pilot at AVI, with the support and encouragement of its CEO, Anthony Payiavlas and his team.  We have since engaged three more companies – Cardinal Health, DaVita, Inc. and Swagelok Corporation – through which we work with food service, distribution, healthcare and industrial employees.  To date we have engaged nearly 35 professors in Books@Work programs, from Hiram, Denison, Dickinson, Case and Drew University.  We have several additional programs in discussion with other companies and colleges around the country.  Yes, Tom, we are honored to agree with you: Books@Work is working!

With their own exposure to the college experience, through a weekly Books@Work seminar, we have already seen participants share books and discussions with their children and seek new ways to continue to learn after the program has ended.  What better way to boost attainment for the next generation than to involve their parents in college learning, to help them create the supportive family and community environment that college students need to be successful?

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.