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Wharton senior Jeffrey Tillus volunteers at Ase Academy, a tutoring organization for Philadelphia secondary students that prepares them for university life.

At 10:15 on a Saturday morning, about 50 people circle up in the multi-purpose room of DuBois College House. The group is comprised of Penn students along with middle and high-school students from around Philadelphia.

The boys cross their arms over their chests and the girls, place their hands across their hearts — signs of respect for their ancestors. One student leads the group in giving the week’s libations, or recognition of meaningful people, ideas and goals.

The warm atmosphere makes it hard to believe that everyone is about to begin hours of tutoring.

This ritual begins every Saturday morning at Ase Academy, a program directed by Penn alumna Tracee Thomas that offers area youth academic tutoring, mentorship and leadership training from volunteer or work-study students at Penn.

Founded in 1999 out of a series of student-led discussions in DuBois, Ase has since grown from a sixth-graders-only program into a secondary school and university preparatory curriculum that encompasses math, literacy, African-American heritage, the arts and life skills such as resume building.

This year, for the first time, Ase is graduating high-school seniors who have been with the program since sixth grade, some of whom are considering applying to Penn.

Thomas, who served as an Ase mentor as a student and became academy director in 2007, said Ase stresses an organic approach to learning with a broader end goal in mind than just improving students’ grades.

“We want them to improve in school, but we also want them to be leaders,” she said, adding that Ase lessons always try to connect concepts to real-life situations so they do not simply feel like another day of class.

During last Saturday’s session, mentors led an interactive workshop on applying to college for Ase’s seniors. Students participated in a productivity demo adapted from a Penn economics professor’s lecture to learn about the value of working “smart” rather than needlessly “hard” on their applications, and then engaged in a role play to explore options for financial aid.

Like the characters in the role play, the students involved in the program come from a variety of backgrounds and said they benefit from Ase in diverse ways. But one thing that links mentors and mentees is another key factor in Ase’s unconventional view of school: that it can, and should, function like a family.

“Everyone is so close with everyone else that it’s like a fraternity or sorority, almost, because we all treat each other like family,” said College junior Dawit Gessese, who has been a mentor since his freshman year.

For College senior Juna Dawson-Murray, these close bonds are among the main incentives to return each year as a mentor. After dabbling in the program as a sophomore, she quickly “fell in love with the kids,” she said.

Dawson-Murray, who has taught older students specialized classes like pre-law, said she relates to many of her mentees based on her own experiences attending a Philadelphia public high school — in particular the challenges of building self-confidence amidst the emotional and academic demands of middle and high school.

When identifying students’ weaknesses, she said Ase “helps them be constructive instead of getting down on themselves.”

This positive approach filters down to mentees, and the seniors among the group have goals ranging from acting to engineering. Students also said they are applying to many different types of universities.

But no matter where they end up matriculating, according to six-year Ase mentee Daniel Williams — who is poised to graduate as valedictorian from Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School — one fact about their futures is certain: “Of course we’ll keep in touch with Ase.”

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