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Urban Squash

When Issey Moore was in the sixth grade, one of his teachers asked him if he was interested in joining a squash program. “I didn’t know how to answer her because I didn’t know what squash was; I’d never heard if it,” says Moore, now a 10th grader at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem.

Katie Siegel ’06, director of operations at StreetSquash of Harlem and Newark, says Moore’s story is typical. “Wherever we go to recruit new students, we get those blank stares,” Siegel says. “But once we get kids engaged, there’s plenty of enthusiasm.”

Katie Siegel ’06, StreetSquash of Harlem and NewarkPhoto: Samuel Stuart

Issey Moore can attest to that. Three days a week during the school year and more often in the summer, Moore joins dozens of other middle school and high school students at the S.L. Green StreetSquash Center on 115th Street in Harlem. Moore says he’s learned a lot about the game over the past four years, but playing competitive squash is only part of the reason he’s there. He says he views StreetSquash as the best route to college. “All our coaches are really invested in us,” Moore says. “You can tell they’re dedicated to helping us do better, and not just in squash.”

All students enrolled at StreetSquash spend as much time on academics as they do on the court. High school students participate in workshops on how to search for the best college, how to study for the SAT and ACT tests, and how to apply for financial aid. And they participate in group discussions with social workers and other professionals on such topics as money management, nutrition, current events, sex education, and healthy relationships. Siegel says the goal at StreetSquash is to meet whatever needs their young clients have, “and if we see a gap, we try to fill it.”

About 2,000 young people across the country are enrolled in programs under the auspices of the National Urban Squash and Education Association.Photo: Samuel Stuart

Moore and his friends at StreetSquash are part of a nationwide movement that began nearly 20 years ago in Boston. It’s been duplicated in more than 20 cities since then, and over the past few years, Vassar alums have been playing key roles in urban squash programs across the country.

Siegel, who played on the Vassar team from 2003 to 2006, coached at StreetSquash in 2010 and 2011 before taking over a program in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She returned to StreetSquash in 2015. Meg Taylor ’12 runs the program in Hartford, CT, and Hope Blinkoff Lynch ’10 is deputy director of a program in Baltimore. Kate Frost ’11 took over as program director of Seattle Urban Squash last year, and Emilie Kraft ’10 and her husband, Anshuman Beri ’08 are volunteers at MetroSquash in Chicago. And last fall Jane Parker, Vassar’s head squash coach for 16 years, joined SquashSmarts in Philadelphia, where she oversees programs for high school-aged youngsters.

Homework help and academic workshops are an integral part of the StreetSquash program.Photo: Samuel Stuart

Tim Wyant, is executive director of the National Urban Squash and Education Association, the umbrella organization for 23 programs across the country that enroll more than 2,000 young people. He says Vassar and its alums have played a major role in the growth of urban squash. “Vassar really stands out as one of the colleges whose alums have been the most committed to this movement at both the staff and volunteer level,” Wyant says. “We bake academics into our programs in a serious way, and that’s something that obviously resonates with Vassar people.”

Mitch Truwit ’91, a former Vassar squash captain and chairman of the board of StreetSquash, says he’s always pleased when one of the players from the program qualifies for national competition. “Some of our graduates have become top college athletes,” Truwit says, but he quickly adds, “That’s not the primary goal; the goal is to start our kids on a lifetime of achievement.”

One hundred percent of StreetSquash alums have graduated from high school; 96 percent have gone on to college, and 60 percent of those are the first in their families to attend college.

Fifteen-year-old Zeinab Bukayoko echoes Truwit’s assessment. She says she’d never heard of squash when she was recruited in seventh grade, but quickly “fell in love” with the game. But she values the lessons she’s learning off the court as much or more than the fun she has playing the game. “We get real help with academics – not just the work itself but study methods and time management,” Bukayoko says. “The staff lets you know that education is your future. That comes first, and squash is second.”

Does StreetSquash deliver results? The numbers are certainly impressive. One hundred percent of the program’s alums graduated from high school, 96 percent go to college, and 60 percent of those are from families who never attended college before. And 86 percent of those currently enrolled in college are on track to graduate on time.

Katie Siegel with middle school and high school students at the S.L. Green StreetSquash Center on 115th Street in HarlemPhoto: Samuel Stuart

Harlem resident Mawa Bollo, a junior at Connecticut College, is part of that 86 percent. A political science major and a member of the varsity squash team, Bollo says StreetSquash has played a major role in her success. “Katie Siegel was my first squash coach, and I still stay in touch with her,” she says. “Another coach is now in law school and I stay in touch with him, too. They are two of the most important influences in my life.”

Siegel says there are many ways to measure how well StreetSquash is influencing the youngsters it serves. She sees one sure sign every week. “On Friday nights when I kind of want to get home for the weekend, I have to kick them out,” Siegel says. “They don’t want to leave.”

Bukayoko says she’s often one of those whom Siegel must push out the door. “It feels like home here,” she says.