Columbia High School Grads Return Program

By maryellen February 22, 2021

I want to pivot this week and focus on great things that are happening in the South Orange Maplewood School District. My  husband and I have 3 teenage boys who are in 8th, 10th and 12th grades in our schools, and we have been happy with their educations and experiences to date.

I’m currently serving as the Treasurer for the Columbia High School Home & School Association (HSA) so last month I had the opportunity to help coordinate Columbia’s annual Grads Return Program. This is a unique program that was started by Allan Tumolillo, a recently retired but still beloved physics teacher. Every year right before the December holiday break, recent CHS graduates return to the high school and participate in discussion panels for the benefit of current CHS students. The panels center on post-CHS opportunities and experiences. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was delayed into January and held virtually on January 22nd for current juniors and seniors.

We had 71 alumni panelists participate and we offered 32 different panels over three hours. Students were given the option to sign up for 2 or 3 panels. Each panel consisted of about 4-6 panelists on the Google Meets platform. They introduced themselves and chatted briefly about their experiences, and then took questions from the student audience. Each panel had a faculty member as a moderator. 

The first hour consisted of panels concerning post-CHS Decisions  and the most popular panel for that hour was “Choosing a College/Major”.  Other panels included “Reducing Anxiety During the College Application Process”, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities”, “Taking a Gap Year” and “Study Abroad”. 

The second hour focused on Areas of Study and these panels were recorded so that CHS students could catch more than one if they wanted. The topics included Medicine, Engineering, Environmental Studies, Education, Business, Political Science, Journalism/Communications, Literature/Writing, Performing Arts, Computer Science and Visual/Fine Arts. The alumni who participated in these panels were able to share their personal experiences about being college students in those disciplines, and a few had even graduated and started their careers.

The final hour consisted of panels relating to Adjusting to College. These panels included “Study Skills and Time Management” (I wish my senior attended that one!), “Playing Sports”, “”Relationships”, “LGBTQ+ Issues on Campus”, “Race on Campus” and “Joining a Fraternity/Sorority”.  Noting the number of SOMSD staff who are active in their HBCU fraternities and sororities, CHS principal Frank Sanchez added a panel titled “Black Greek Life”.  Maplewood Middle School principal Dara Gronau and Montrose prinicpal Bonita Samuels were among the panelists.

Although virtual, the program was still successful. We got a lot of positive feedback from CHS students and their parents. One parent said that her daughter was so excited listening to the panelists and excited about the possibilities; another posted that “This grads return day is great. The returning grads are killing it with information, tips and reassurance. I wish I had this back in the day when I was in high school. This is such a great event.”

I’m glad that I contributed to the success of the program this year and hope that it can perhaps return to an in-person event in the near future.