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Leaders of Tomorrow: How a Virtual Speaker Series at Pathways Winnipeg is Empowering Youth

This article first appeared on the website of our grantee partner Pathways to Education Canada. It is shared with permission. 

When students see themselves represented in role models, it helps to shape their self-belief and exposes them to a range of possible career paths—helping them to become the next generation of leaders in their own community and beyond.

Being a role model for youth was one of the reasons Claudette Lavallee wanted to work with young people when she became a Student Parent Support Worker at Pathways Winnipeg.

“I never had a voice when I was younger, and I always wished that I had somebody to support me and advocate for me,” Claudette says.

At Pathways Winnipeg, Claudette delivers relevant programming and one-on-one supports to help students overcome the barriers to education they face.

At the Winnipeg program location, 66 percent of students self-identified as Indigenous during the 2019-2020 school year—making representation of Indigenous role models essential for the youth they serve.

Last year, when social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic kept youth at home, Claudette wanted to find a way to help students cope with the anxiousness many reported feeling by creating a safe and welcoming setting virtually.

“We were trying different things to keep them involved—they were in a new environment online, but we wanted them to be able to talk with other people, to see other people.”

Claudette invited Shanley Spence—an Indigenous community advocate and public speaker—to give a virtual talk. Shanley shared how she dealt with her own anxiousness and extreme shyness growing up and gave tips on how to feel more confident.

“The students loved it. They really enjoyed her talk,” says Claudette. “I got lots of good feedback from the students and from parents and guardians as well.”

With the students engaged, Claudette began organizing weekly virtual talks with other prominent Indigenous figures, including sports team coaches, political representatives, and business leaders—all of whom had overcome their own adversities on their path to success.

Claudette also hopes to empower more students with different life experiences through the speaker series.

“We have a lot of newcomer students in the program so I’m lining up a few guest speakers who can share their experience of being a newcomer to Canada,” says Claudette.

She believes that initiatives like this speaker series are setting young people up for success by introducing them to a variety of positive role models.

“I think everybody should have somebody to look up to. Having a person there to guide you is so important, it changes people’s lives.”


Pathways to Education provides youth from low-income communities with the resources they need to graduate from high school and break the cycle of poverty.

Staying the Course – Mentoring First-Generation College Students During High School

The President’s Challenge Scholarship (PCS) Program at SUNY Ulster assists first-generation local students with overcoming socio-economic barriers associated with attending college. Selected in eighth grade, students receive counseling and mentoring throughout high school.

The PCS College Mentor team, comprised of SUNY Ulster’s Enrollment and Success Center Counselors, is charged with supporting nearly 100 scholarship recipients from nine school districts across Ulster County. Their primary goal as mentors is to be a consistent resource for students – keeping them motivated and on the college-bound track.

The PCS college mentors visit with students on SUNY Ulster’s campus and several times throughout the year at their high schools. Mentors have found the most success in creating small discussion groups where they are able to assess student needs and offer individual attention. During their in-person sessions, mentors were able to use a career assessment tool called FOCUS2 to get students thinking about future career options based on their interests and strengths.

Rebecca Mercado with some of her students at Ellenville High School in early 2019.

“The PCS students have consistently surprised me with their enthusiasm and varied interests,” said Rebecca Mercado, PCS College Mentor for Ellenville and Rondout Valley high schools. “The College will be lucky to have such amazing young people as a part of our community!”

Students also have an online component to complement what they are exploring in their in-person mentor sessions. These sessions will offer them remote access to college readiness material, discussion with other scholarship recipients, and guidance from their mentor in between in-person visits. Online content will further expand each year the student is in the program as they move toward graduation from high school and entry to SUNY Ulster. Due to COVID-19, this summer’s College Mentor engagement session now includes an online connection with mentors and SUNY Ulster student leaders to challenge scholarship recipients to reflect on their experience over the past few months and encourage them to try something new before their next session.

In addition to providing a support network and getting students acclimated to online learning, mentors are also a resource for college planning. Through SUNY Ulster’s Collegian Program, students are able to complete college-level courses right at their high school. These courses not only give students a jumpstart on their college experience by offering them transferable college credits, they also are funded through the student’s scholarship. Mentors advise students on course options, including how courses will fit into their college degree programs.

While most of the PCS recipients are still in high school, this fall, four of the original group of six students from the 2016 Rondout Valley Central School District pilot program will attend SUNY Ulster full-time. One of the students from this cohort is entering her second year at SUNY Ulster, as she entered a year early. Mercado, the students’ college mentor, offered support with the admissions and financial aid process as well as with course registration. While two students chose to attend college elsewhere, Mercado was happy she was able to advocate for them on their road to college.

Dr. Alan P. Roberts

The lives of the students who attend the PCS program will be forever changed, noted Dr. Alan Roberts, SUNY Ulster President.

“PCS recipients not only accept our challenge when they enter this program, but they also make a PCS promise and sign our pledge book by committing to being responsible students who are active in and out of the classroom by choosing and acting with kindness, having an open mind and being ready to learn new perspectives, setting a good example for others, and making every effort to participate in PCS activities. In turn, we promise to build relationships through mentorship experiences and donor engagement opportunities during their time in high school, continuing to motivate them to act on their future educational plans in real-time.

“The students entering universities in the fall are stellar success stories who have become the ultimate beneficiaries of the support and guidance received from four years of mentorship in the program,” Roberts added. “I am proud to serve as a champion for the success of PCS students through their educational pathways and entry to SUNY Ulster.”

To learn more about the PCS Program and how you can support these first-generation college-bound students, visit our website: www.sunyulster.edu/presidentschallenge.

Nancy S. Clarke is Administrative Program Coordinator for the President’s Challenge Scholarship Program at SUNY Ulster. Fourteen of the President Challenge Scholarship students have been sponsored by the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

Valedictorian: How Perseverance and Mentoring Have Guided Me

The following are excerpts from essays written by a graduating senior in the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children (JSTSIC) Program, a college readiness program that is a partnership between the School District of Palm Beach CountyTake Stock in Children Palm Beach County and the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. We will feature other student authors in the coming weeks.

My family has a history of overcoming struggles. My grandfather began working in the fields at the tender age of four. My father started working at the age of six. My mother never completed any education beyond 6th grade due to the family’s financial difficulties.

I have had to overcome difficulties since the day I was born. Surrounded by sugarcane and wild rabbits that run the fields in the small rural town of Belle Glade, I was a premature baby, with unhealthy weight and lack of interest in eating. Although my mother tried her best to maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy, due to extreme financial distress, she often went without nutritious food.

Gema Cervantes holding laptop and flowers

When I was two months old, I contracted viral meningitis due to weak health and poor environmental surroundings. When I was two years of age, once again, I was rushed to the hospital for surgery from an appendicitis. I later suffered from dehydration right after the surgery. I had extended hospital stays since birth throughout my childhood. The medical bills would often begin to accumulate one after another, and my parents often had difficulty keeping up with them. At the age of nine, I was diagnosed with ADHD and Myopia after years of struggling to do well in school and being inflicted with chronic headaches. I had to be placed in the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program for the rest of my elementary years because the effect of meningitis in my brain had caused me to have a learning disability.

The lack of financial stability in my family is directly linked to my family members being unable to attain an education beyond the 6th grade. This fact, in turn, has created a generational chain of inability to achieve an education and consequently, poor health.

One of the differences that has turned me into a strong leader is the strong parents that I have. Both wanted me to have a better chance in life and crossed to a foreign nation in the pursuit of that better life. They wanted me to have what they did not have. They continually remind me never to let my opportunities to learn go to waste. Unlike my parents, I can attend high school and finish college thanks to Take Stock in Children. They have talked to me throughout my high school life to work hard in school so that I don’t have to go through what my parents went through.

During high school, I have participated in over ten extracurricular activities and have strived for excellence in academics. I am President of the Pros and Consequences of Life Club which serves to promote awareness of HIV, STDs and academic focus. I am also President of the Spanish Book Club which drives students to success in their foreign language courses and fundraisers to provide the homeless with dental supplies. I am a mentor with the ESOL Mentoring program in which students are pushed to overcome the stresses and anxieties of learning a foreign language, which I have experienced myself.

My goal in five years is to practice primary family medicine in rural areas in Palm Beach County like Belle Glade. My first step is by finishing my undergraduate degree at Florida State University.

I would like to return twice a month to Glades Central High School to support organizations such as the ESOL Mentoring Program and the Women of Tomorrow to continue empowering women. It would also be my greatest desire to help students with whom I share the struggle and anxiety of learning a second language. I would continue to mentor students from the ESOL mentoring program and to establish an organization that mentors students with the lowest grades at Glades Central High School and with learning disabilities. Being able to help establish this organization would be meaningful to me because I have a learning disability and understand the discipline it takes to control such a disability. My third goal would be to support Take Stock in Children as a volunteer throughout my three years of medical school.

Gema Cervantes wearing graduation cap and gown

Through the growth I have gained from hardships I have encountered and the mentoring support received from TSIC, I will graduate with my AA degree from Palm Beach State College by high school graduation. I will be graduating high school as valedictorian.

My parents may not have received education more than the 6th grade, but they taught me to live with integrity and honesty. My goal is to continue to serve my community, to become the best person I can be, determined to meet my goals and to serve.

Gema Cervantes is a senior at Glades Central High School in Florida and a participant in the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children (JSTSIC) Program.

We All Contribute to Mentoring and Caring for Students

This article first appeared on the website of the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and the Suder Foundation.

 

Working with students who are first in their families to attend college is a privilege. I have been one of these fortunate individuals for nearly 14 years at the University of Florida. I believe every college and university should have full-time professionals, in student affairs or elsewhere, dedicated to advancing access and success for this underserved population.

Beyond those of us with formal student affairs training, there are a myriad of campus professionals who can and do support first-generation students. I had the honor of sitting down with two such professionals at UF, one a custodial associate director and the other, an assistant professor. I doubt the two would ever have crossed professional paths had it not been for this conversation. Something special happened during that hour over coffee. They revealed important insight about the linkage of passion and action. I offer edited excerpts from our conversation to encourage you to expand your view of what it means to maximize employee talent to achieve what we’re all ultimately here to do – mentor and care for students.

Tanya Hughes, Associate Director, Building Services: There’s not a check-box on my job description that says I need to mentor students. But so much of my job is mentoring students. Nobody wants to do the hard work that we do: clean toilets, scrub floors, wash windows. But our work is student success. Clean spaces promote learning and achievement. I also empower my team to bond with students. They know how to refer to resources when we sense students are struggling. Parents trust us to keep an eye on their kids and we take that responsibility seriously. Yes, we’re here to clean, but we’re also here to connect and care for students. Not everyone on campus understands the vital role we play in student success, but I do and my team does. We are humble; we don’t boast. But I feel pretty sure that my custodial team has saved student lives. I definitely know we’ve impacted them. That’s what matters.

Dr. Jaime Ruiz, Assistant Professor, Computer & Information Science & Engineering: I agree with Tanya; I love mentoring students. I also feel fortunate that my department supports me in this endeavor. In higher education, “doing diversity work” is talked about as important, but sometimes it’s all lip service, and action rarely or never happens. In my department, diversity work isn’t merely lip service; we take action.

Dr. Jaime Ruiz, third from left, with his research team
Dr. Jaime Ruiz, third from left, with his research team

I hire only first-generation students to work in my research lab. They are incredibly bright students who struggle at first with imposter syndrome (the feeling that they’re not as competent as others perceive them to be) but the more success they experience and the more rapport we build, they thrive. I enjoy modeling for them the importance of striking a balance in college between having a good time and focusing on their studies. I wish some of my colleagues were able to strike a balance for themselves. It’s sad to me that according to research and my own observations, job satisfaction diminishes after a faculty member earns tenure. Mentoring students is the most satisfying part of my job and as I actively work towards tenure myself, I model and remind myself of that important balance. I try to live what I teach.

Jaime: I learned about UF’s commitment to first-generation students when I attended New Faculty Orientation in 2016. When I decided I’d hire only first-generation students in my lab, not only was I overwhelmed by the number of students interested in the positions, I was also overwhelmed by how to decide among so many outstanding, high-quality students. I had the expectation that first-generation students would be strong students. However, the applications didn’t just represent strong students but some of the best students UF has to offer. Knowing I had only two positions, I immediately began sharing the applications with colleagues in hopes that I could place more students with research mentors.

Tanya Hughes with a staff member.
Tanya Hughes with a staff member.

As a faculty member, I realize some first-generation students may be intimidated initially but with our monthly social activities and the way I try to empower them [in my lab], I think they quickly come to see that I’m in their corner. I have provided first-generation students with research opportunities, and they have helped me advance my research.

Tanya: I have so much passion for custodial work, and it’s important to me that our halls are clean for students and their families. I sent my son to college and I fought the urge to scrub his room and bathroom. You either have a passion, or you don’t. As a supervisor for the past few decades, I seek to hire those that display a passion for this work.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Building a university culture of mentoring and supporting students should encourage all professionals, no matter their role, to infuse passion for students into their work. Maybe we need teams of professionals dedicated to talent management and student success who create engaging opportunities to build this campus-wide culture. Maybe we need to listen more deeply to students and consider their holistic experience as a student on our campus. Perhaps just talking to talented colleagues who “get it” like Tanya and Jaime are a start. When we come together, sometimes over coffee, it’s amazing how we’re reminded of the tremendous impact that we can achieve together. I’m proud to work in concert with both Tanya and Jaime, as well as many others at the University of Florida for whose university contributions and passion for students are one in the same. Go Gators!

To learn more about first-generation student initiatives at UF, visit: firstgeneration.ufsa.ufl.edu/.

Dr. Leslie Pendleton is the Senior Director of the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program in the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Florida. During her tenure at UF, Leslie has led the effort to champion first-generation, low-income college students and in 2009, was named the inaugural director of the now nationally-recognized MFOS program. 

Bus Tickets, Pathways to Education, and Potential Greatness

Growing up, I had always had a bit of trouble when it came to academics, especially math. I couldn’t easily understand numbers as much as I wanted to. As the courses advanced, I found myself more and more confused than I had been the year before. In 2013, when I was starting Grade 9, I came across an opportunity to join a program called Pathways to Education. The flyer detailed all the resources the program provided to its participants, and it was all without cost.

To anyone reading this flyer, I’m sure the opportunity would sound too good to be true. I was not excited. I was offended that I was being offered tutoring. Unrightfully so, I had a negative outlook about tutoring, even though no one placed these notions in my mind. I don’t know where the mindset came from, but because of it, I did not register for a program that would have helped my Grade 9 year flow a lot smoother. This was a decision that I regret to this day.

For me, the bus tickets weren’t the only beneficial aspect . What had me coming back to the program every day was the incredible support at Pathways. The staff genuinely wanted to see the students succeed. Their help was never-ending, and it really made me feel welcomed very quickly. When at tutoring, they were quick to set me up with a volunteer who walked me through my math unit. They taught me the subject in such a clear way that I finally had that “eureka!” moment I long desired. The staff and volunteers helped me succeed through high school more than I ever imagined.

Since beginning the program, I have talked to the staff there as if they were friends. I would seek out advice from them, which helped my decision-making skills in the long run. I made connections with the trusted staff that I never thought I could make. They made me feel as if I had a voice– a voice worth listening to.

Youth tend to feel unimportant and parented by those in authority, so having mentors that understood and listened was worth a thousand words. Now I have connections that will last a life time, as well as loving friends who were also in the program. I give some of the credit of my successes to the Pathways program because without it, I never would have realized that I have potential for greatness.

Sidra is a recent graduate of Pathways to Education Canada, an organization that provides youth from low-income communities with the resources they need to graduate from high school and break the cycle of poverty.

First-Generation Student Overcomes Challenges on Path to Wall Street Career

If you had asked 18-year-old Mohamad Merilan where he would be after college, he would not have said, “working on Wall Street.” Merilan is now working for Credit Suisse in the Research Clearance Technology division.

Mohamad Merilan

Merilan went from attending D-ranked public schools without the promise of higher education to graduating from the University of Florida with a job offer to work on Wall Street. Throughout his life thus far, Merilan embodies success, service and the American Dream.

Growing up in Orlando, Florida, as one out of eight children of two Haitian immigrant parents, Merilan’s father left the picture when he was 12 years old. As the sole English speaker among his family, he had to learn to write checks, manage his mother’s car insurance and handle her mortgage.  

Merilan was not introduced to the idea of college until sixth grade when his social studies teacher at Carver Middle School, Cynthia Davis, advocated for all her students to pursue a college education.

Merilan paired his telecommunication degree with campus involvement in programs like the Engineering Leadership Certificate, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, the National Society of Black Engineers, Florida Blue Key and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Out of all of his involvements, though, arguably his most influential contribution was holding golf clinics for minority engineering students. As a first-generation college student and a Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar, Merilan understands the importance of giving back and effecting change.

 Former University of Florida President Dr. Bernie Machen, Mohamad Merilan, David Whitney (Merilan's mentor) and University President Dr. Kent Fuchs.
From left: Former University of Florida President Dr. Bernie Machen, Mohamad Merilan, David Whitney (Merilan’s mentor) and University President Dr. Kent Fuchs.

His social studies teacher always advised Merilan that he would need to find a way to fund his college education since he was a child, and the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship did just that. “Without the MFOS program, I wouldn’t have been able to attend college,” Merilan said.

Mentors such as Cynthia Davis, David Whitney and Dr. Tommy Dorsey have been key stakeholders in Merilan’s rise to success. “I don’t know where I would be if they weren’t primary influencers in my life.”

January is National Mentoring Month

Check out www.mentoring.org, the website of MENTOR, a national non-profit organization devoted to increasing the quality and quantity of mentoring relationships for America’s young people. It makes the case for mentoring
as follows:

National Mentoring Month 2018 logoMentoring, at its core, guarantees young people that there is someone who cares about them, assures them they are not alone in dealing with day-to-day challenges, and makes them feel like they matter. Research confirms that quality mentoring relationships have powerful positive effects on young people in a variety of personal, academic and professional situations. Ultimately, mentoring connects a young person to personal growth and development, and social and economic opportunity. Yet one in three young people will grow up without this critical asset.

Most of us readily accept the value of mentoring. We have had mentors of one kind or another in our lives and deeply appreciate their contribution to our development. Further, most of us can understand that mentoring is even more important for “at risk” young people. It should come as no surprise that many of the disadvantaged people that the Foundation seeks to serve do not have access to mentoring. MENTOR calls this the “mentoring gap.”

John Lera holding a certificateEffective mentoring has become the gold standard for the Foundation’s scholarships serving students with disadvantages. We have learned that preparation for college is more important than money. Students who are not emotionally and academically prepared for college have little chance of success. It is the mentors of these students who prepare them and continue to support them after the transition to college: teachers, volunteers and non-profit organizations. A great example of this is the Johnson Scholars program and Take Stock in Children.

Mentoring is also a significant part of most of the Foundation’s non-scholarship programs. Eye to Eye, for example, provides mentoring to middle and high school students who learn differently. We invest in Eye to Eye because mentoring is the most valuable thing that can be given to these aspiring students. Bridges from School to Work and the Statler Center are two Foundation supported programs that help to train and place people with disabilities into the competitive workplace. They accomplish this good work through intensive training and personal support. Staying with the disability programs, our scholarships at the State University System of Florida continue to attract increasing non-monetary support.

Woman at podium in graduation cap and gownOur investment in Pathways to Education is a hybrid of capacity building and student scholarship support. Pathways’ various supports – social, academic and financial – amount to mentorship for these children and account for high retention and graduation rates. Another Foundation investment that supports underserved children, Nativity Prep in Boston, achieves similar results by connecting to its students in middle school and following them through high school, college and into the workplace. Our investment at Nativity is not for scholarships but for its ongoing support (mentoring) of its students.

The Foundation’s mission is to assist disadvantaged people to obtain education and employment. We have come to understand that mentoring is at the heart of our work. Mentoring helps young people, particularly those that face disadvantages, to see a bright future and to understand that they can and should have a bright future. In the Foundation’s grantmaking we must be mindful of the importance of mentoring and that one-third of young people need further access to mentoring. The social and economic value of connecting with these young people cannot be overstated.

Listening, the Key to a Successful Mentorship

The word “mentorship” is commonly defined as a relationship in which an experienced person shares wisdom with a less experienced person. The more experienced mentor gives guidance to an eager mentee hungry for knowledge. These definitions might suggest that the mentee has more to learn than the mentor.

National Mentoring Month 2018 logoHowever, the learning can be equally important to both parties. While my own list is long, here are a few things I have learned as a mentor. I need to stop telling my mentees what they should do and help lead them to their own solutions. I must be available to my mentee and make our relationship a priority. I need to be more open-minded about possibilities; my mentees sure are. I am often impatient and need to slow down and reflect.

One of the best ways to open the pathway between mentors and mentees is to listen. It sounds simple, but to truly engage in active listening, you must practice it. Here are a few tips to help the two-way relationship develop:

Ask open-ended questions. You find out much more about a person and their perspectives by asking questions that need to be answered with more than one or two words.

Reflect what you hear so that the other person knows you heard and understood what he/she said.

Summarize conversations and make sure you have agreement on next steps.

Use affirmations for encouragement and support.

Mentorship can be an enriching experience for both the mentor and the mentee. If you are currently mentoring or being mentored by someone, try using these active listening skills. Once it becomes easy, you can focus less on the questions and fully enjoy the answers.