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Marvin Nichols

Grounds 2 Technician Marvin Nichols works with volunteer tutor Elaine Debalko at the Helen M. Robinson Center for Reading.

Photographer: Monica Chapman

Marvin Nichols

For seven years, Marvin Nichols has been coming to the center to improve his reading, writing and math skills in preparation for the General Educational Development (GED) test.

Photographer: Monica Chapman

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From coal mines to the classroom, OHIO grounds technician receives gift of literacy at 53

Free services through Literacy Center support adult education across the region

Marvin Nichols has devoted 38 years to the workforce – 11 years in the coal mines and 27 years at Ohio University. But at 53 years old, Nichols’ work is far from over. First, he intends to earn his high school diploma.

“I’ve been out of school since the 70s. That’s a long time,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t regret (dropping out of high school). To me, I want to work and still do. But just a piece of paper – that’s what life wants – a piece of paper (to) tell ‘em you can do it.”

Once a week for the past seven years, Nichols has been coming to the Helen M. Robinson Center for Reading, a division of the Stevens Literacy Center located in the basement of McCracken Hall. Here he works one-on-one with a volunteer tutor to improve his reading, writing and math skills in preparation for the General Educational Development (GED) test.

The center’s 27 tutors currently serve 30 learners free of charge thanks to the generous support of a grant from the Verizon Foundation. Most are grade school students that have “fallen through the cracks” of the educational system, according to Center Coordinator Gwennan Richmond, a senior political science major.

Nichols is one of two adults currently being tutored at the center, and the services are already paying off.

Nichols recently passed the last of seven written tests to become a certified Grounds 2 Technician, paving the way for new job responsibilities and a raise. His tutor at the time, Sharon Reynolds, went so far as to accompany him on the way to the testing center in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

An ABLE partner

Today, Reynolds serves as director of adult learning at the Literacy Center, where she oversees the Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) Resource Center.

The University-housed program is one of four regional resource centers in the state. Collectively these centers provide resources and professional development to 66 adult literacy programs across Ohio free of charge.
“My staff can get any resources they need,” said Joe McGowan, director of The Work Station, an employment and training center located in The Plains, Ohio. “The training they offer is fabulous, and because they concentrate on learning disabilities, we can access their bank of knowledge to work with some of our more difficult students.”

During the past 16 years, The Work Station has graduated approximately 75 adult learners each year. McGowan said most of the adult learners that come through The Work Station are motivated to attain their GEDs to qualify for the military, financial aid or various employment opportunities.

“One of every seven Americans who have a diploma got it through the GED, so there’s definitely a high demand for it,” he said.

Currently, Ohio is the second-highest performing state in the nation in terms of the number of students who earn GEDs, and the field is growing in importance, added Reynolds. 

“For a long time, people weren’t very familiar with adult literacy. It wasn’t something that people talked about,” she said. “But now, the chancellor and governor are talking about the need to increase the skills of our workforce. One of the ways to do that is through adult literacy programs.”

A bold confession

According to 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, an estimated nine percent of the adults age 16 and older in Athens County lacked basic prose literacy skills in 2003. In the surrounding counties, estimates are even higher, averaging just over 11 percent.

“There’s more than me around here in this situation. But they’re afraid to say anything…too much pride,” said Nichols. “To me, I got no pride. To me, I just said it and did it.”

As current Ohio University students, Nichols’ daughters serve as inspiration to his educational endeavors. His youngest aspires to be a teacher, while his first-born is pursuing a career in the medical field.

“They’re a whole lot smarter than I am in books. But common sense, I got ‘em beat by a long shot," said Nichols, who dropped out of school in eleventh grade to work for Peabody Coal in Meigs County as a dynamite technician.

Nichols departed school just one year after his twin brother dropped out. His mother dropped out in the fifth grade.

“They don’t care. But I want to make something out of my life,” Nichols said. “I shouldn’t care what people think, but I do.”

A strong resolve

It’s been seven years since Nichols first set foot in the Tutoring Center, and time is taking its toll. This is apparent even as Nichols jokes with Elaine Debalko, his current tutor, about the longevity of his stay.

“Still doin’ time,” he says with a laugh, noting, “I wish I was milkin’ it, but it ain’t that easy. Believe me.”

But he has no intention of giving up. In a year, Nichols said he hopes to have his GED in hand. In two years, he wants to add an electrician license to his résumé.

“(I had to) show the people I wouldn’t quit. I never give up. You can’t give up… you just can’t do it,” said Nichols.
Such persistence is characteristic of the adult learners that Reynolds has encountered over the course of her career.

“To (go back to school) as an adult takes a lot of courage. But, what I’ve found is that once they take that step, adult learners are some of the most determined and committed learners that I’ve ever worked with,” she said.

Reynolds added, “(Marvin) has inspired me to work harder in my job to make education more accessible to all adults who have the desire to learn.”


This special Compass series features the programs and initiatives through which Ohio University students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends are realizing their promise as they elevate lives across the region. These people-focused success stories take you behind the scenes and highlight the many meaningful ways OHIO serves society by supporting educational, economic, creative and wellness endeavors, as well as other humanitarian efforts.

Dual-focused tutoring program benefits children and adults, including OHIO students

Adult education is just one component of the work being done at Ohio University’s Stevens Literacy Center. Children comprise the other end of the spectrum and make up the majority of clientele at the Helen M. Robinson Center for Reading.

The free, one-on-one tutoring services offered through the center are a beacon of hope for students struggling academically and parents struggling economically.

“Parents in our community cannot generally pay the going rate for tutoring. They just can’t, and there’s really not a lot of opportunities,” said Director of Adult Learning Sharon Reynolds. “We have a great resource with energetic college students… It’s a good opportunity for the college to give back to the community.”

For Center Coordinator Gwennan Richmond, who has a younger sister with dyslexia, the work is personal.

“I have seen first-hand how much of a struggle a lack of individualized attention in the classroom can be,” she said. “Many of the children that we work with not only struggle with reading, but also have a severe lack of confidence in the classroom and are often afraid to ask questions.”

For this reason, tutors at the Literacy Center are instructed to tailor lesson plans to focus on skill development and confidence building while working at the pace of each learner.

The center also holds benefits for OHIO students, who comprise the majority of volunteers at the Tutoring Center. 

“It has allowed me to connect with the Athens community in a way I do not think I would have been able to otherwise,” said Richmond, a senior political science major. “It has opened my eyes to some of the hardships that this region faces as well as exposed me to profound kindness coming from members of this community that I have called home for the last four years.”     

-Monica Chapman

 A history of the Stevens Literacy Center

In February of 1998, the Ohio University Board of Trustees approved the establishment of the Edward Stevens Center for the Study and Development of Literacy and Language in the College of Education. The Literacy Center was established by Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Education Edward Stevens to foster professional development, research and study into literacy and language in the University as well as the surrounding region.

Related Links

Literacy Center National Assessment of Adult Literacy*

Additional Info

*Following this link takes you outside of Ohio University's website.