Students holding books

UF Student Life initiative promotes literacy and college readiness in Gainesville students

Encouraging children to enjoy reading from a young age can be a challenging feat to accomplish, especially with the added stress of classroom disruptions and COVID-19. Over the past year, however, the University of Florida Division of Student Life team has been working toward fulfilling that very goal.

In late October, staff hosted their first virtual reading program event in collaboration with the Rajon Rondo Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to investing in youth and encouraging students to be the best versions of themselves. The event, which was attended by two fifth grade classes at Marjorie K. Rawlings Elementary School, touched on all three of the initiative’s main goals: increasing mentors and tutors within schools; expanding college access, exposure and preparedness; and encouraging parent and family engagement.

Students raising hands

Both fifth grade classes received matching T-shirts and copies of the book “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Willams-Garcia to take home. Photo Courtesy of Shenice Smith

“Oftentimes, when people think about college readiness, they think about high schoolers and sometimes middle schoolers, but we want to make sure that we are getting students exposed to college from the get-go,” said Danielle Difato, program coordinator. “So, even with these fifth graders, we want to say ‘Hey, there’s a college that is investing in you right around the corner.’ And we want to make sure college is attainable.”

At an elementary level, this means supporting programs, resources and partnerships that promote reading and writing comprehension — both in the classroom and at home.

In August, staff worked alongside local non-profit Kids Count to host a back-to-school bash offering free school supplies and uniforms to elementary school students, a partnership that will continue with monthly sessions connecting students with older volunteers to discuss a range of skills and topics. Other events have included a workshop for students at Joseph Williams Elementary School and a wellness event that provided free COVID-19 rapid tests and vaccinations to members of the community.

The team also works closely with Eastside High School through monthly events such as etiquette workshops and campus tours. Another program implemented at Eastside, “I Gotcha Back,” brings UF students to share their experiences with the high schoolers. So far, panels have been hosted by leaders of student organizations, members of Greek life and student athletes.

Although the team is hoping to transition to more in-person events this semester, the pandemic provided a unique challenge. The virtual event with basketball player Rajon Rondo, which connected students with Rondo over Zoom, offered an effective solution.

Boy holding book

“One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia takes place in 1968 and follows three sisters visiting their mother in California. Photo Courtesy of Shenice Smith

Shenice Smith, a graduate assistant who works with Difato and Dr. Lane Washington, director of strategic initiatives, to support the K-12 initiative, played a direct role in organizing the event. In addition to the thrill of meeting with an NBA All-Star player, Smith also employed other tactics aimed at getting kids naturally excited about reading.

Prior to the event itself, Smith connected with Marjorie K. Rawlings teachers to discuss books that would most appeal to the fifth graders — settling on “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia. With some comedic elements, the book lied outside the realm of what students normally associate with academics and was successful in grabbing the classes’ attention.

Rondo and the students went back and forth reading the first two chapters, followed by a Q&A.

“Almost every student had some kind of touch point with him — either they read alongside him or they were able to ask him a direct question,” Smith said. “Just seeing their excitement around the book helped encourage us to continue to do programs like this.”

Questions for Rondo ranged from curiosity about his basketball career — such as how many times he’s dunked and what it’s like to play with big names such as LeBron James — to more personal subjects. One student’s question about how to move forward after an embarrassing or disappointing moment led to a heartfelt response about building character and staying motivated.

Another significant part of Smith’s role is engaging families in reading outside of the classroom. As part of an effort to help build students at-home libraries, she and the rest of the Student Life team provided students with a two-page activity guide that corresponded with “One Crazy Summer.”

Both classes of fifth graders also left the Rondo event with a copy of “One Crazy Summer.” To encourage students to keep reading, the Rajon Rondo Foundation sponsored a follow-up writing challenge that prompted them to submit a summary of three chapters of the novel and a paragraph on the importance of reading. Participants were entered for the chance to win a $500 Visa gift card.

  • Students on Zoom
    Student Life's collaboration with the Rajon Rondo Foundation allowed the team to engage students while still abiding by COVID-19 protocols. Difato and Smith joined students in the classroom, while Rondo attended through Zoom. Photo Courtesy of Shenice Smith

When planning the virtual reading event, Smith said she and the team took care to make sure the event itself was well-organized and easily repeatable. Since this is the case, she hopes the program can be pitched to other elementary schools in the area and have a more widespread influence on student success.

“One of our primary goals is to make sure that it’s sustainable,” she said. “We don’t necessarily believe that one-off events or a one-off book being purchased for a kid is going to have a long-term impact on the way that they see their education and their future.”

One way the Student Life team is practicing sustainability, in addition to having employees dedicated to providing support, is by being intentional from the very beginning, Smith said.

When recruiting students for mentorship programs like “Tech4Success” in the Office of Distance Learning, the Student Life team asks students to commit to one year of being a mentor for high schoolers in the Gainesville Housing Authority, an affordable housing provider. Similarly, the team ensures potential Alachua County Public Schools volunteers can commit to at least 12 classroom or after-school sessions.

In looking to the future, Smith said her goals for the initiative include continuing to build sustainable, long-lasting partnerships within the Gainesville community, such as those with Kids Count and the Title I Department.

“I just want to help set us up for success the best way I can but also be creative in how we implement some of these strategies,” she said. “We are in such a challenging time, but that shouldn’t be an excuse as to why we don’t get things done.”

Sources: Danielle Difato,;
Shenice Smith,

Writer: Veronica Nocera;