Cameron Bell ’16 has tried to run from teaching. But her calling keeps catching up.
The daughter, niece, and granddaughter of teachers, Bell came to Princeton planning to study public policy and, eventually, law. Then she took a freshman seminar on education and equality with Danielle Allen ’93, who was then a faculty member at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study. Bell says the course made her realize education could be a powerful tool in helping to shape a better world. “I got reignited in that passion,” she says.
Fast forward to 2020, when COVID-19 disrupted the education of children across the country and Bell jumped in to help. The Pandemic Tutoring Project she started in November recruits volunteers to give free tutoring and homework assistance to students from kindergarten through 12th grade, in subjects including, math, science, history, English, Spanish, and college prep. Students from all over the country can use Sign-Up Genius to register for a Google Meet session, usually 40 minutes to an hour.
For Bell, the project feels like a return to her roots. “I see myself as a teacher, no matter where I am and no matter what setting I’m in,” she says. “I'm still doing what I know I'm called to do.”
After several education-related internships through Princeton Internships in Civic Service, Bell graduated with a degree in history and a certificate in African American studies, but just shy of her teaching certificate. She planned to complete her student teaching requirement in the fall, but returned too late from a trip with Princeton in Asia to enroll.
Just before the 2016 presidential election, Bell moved home to Newport News, Virginia, and took what she thought was a temporary job as a community organizer for the Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is cool. Let’s see where this goes,’” she says. “And then it kept going.”
Four years later, Bell is still a community organizer, but education has found its way into her life again. “Teaching is my first love,” she says. “I really want to get back to that.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Bell contacted friends and family members working in education, and learned about the tremendous need for resources for students thrown into virtual learning. Bell wanted to help, but with a full-time job she knew she couldn’t make much impact alone. She reached out to friends from Princeton and beyond, and her social networks, with the kernel of an idea: virtual tutoring.
Soon, Bell had amassed a group of six people, including graduate students and full-time employees, who could devote at least a day a month to tutoring school-age students online. They all agreed: They’d offer their services at no cost. “Folks have lost jobs and people are losing their homes,” Bell says. “We needed to make it 100 percent free.”
The project is helping her understand how families have adjusted to the COVID-19 crisis, and what gaps remain in education. “What does it mean to say public education is public and free? What structures have to be in place to make sure it’s free and equitable and includes everybody?” Bell says. “Those are the kind of questions that guide me.”
The Pandemic Tutoring Project has capped its tutors, for now, but prospective volunteers can email firstname.lastname@example.org to be considered when the project expands.