Melissa Watras with Victoria Miller, a Johnson City Middle School student

Mentors matter

Fall 2009

Undergrads make a difference in middle-schoolers’ lives.

he middle-school years are a crucial time that can be both exciting and daunting. Adolescents are often thrust into new surroundings with crowds of unfamiliar faces and stacks of unheard-of subjects. There are schedules to memorize and activities to join. Coupled with a slew of physical and emotional changes, these years can leave middle-schoolers feeling overwhelmed. Those fortunate to have a strong support system may get through unscathed.

The Johnson City Mentor Program aims to do just that. The idea started at a Johnson City High School football game more than ı5 years ago, when Dan McCormack, then director of the TRIO educational outreach programs at Binghamton University, was watching his high school alma mater play. Just into the first quarter, his friend, assistant superintendent of the Johnson City School District, asked if University students ever worked as mentors. “By the end of the game, we had it all figured out,” says McCormack, who now helps faculty and staff write grants though the Center for Learning and Teaching and the Center for Applied Community Research and Development.

By pairing Binghamton undergraduates with Johnson City Middle School students for five hours a week, the kids get reliable social and academic support from college-age role models. It’s not a big-brother, big-sister program, but a supervised in-school activity.

YouTube video

Mentors make time for students and each other.

“It’s a program that our students really look forward to,” says Ahlpheh Wilson, dean of students at the middle school, where nearly half of the 600 sixth- through eighth-grade students apply for the program each year. While some receive academic support, “It’s not really a tutoring thing,” Wilson says. The program provides so much more, and a college-age mentor can serve as an introduction to higher education and keep students interested in school, he says. “A lot of students lack organization or feel better having a role model to provide a little extra support and help them make good decisions.”

Between 50 and 85 Binghamton students sign up each year to become mentors. While some are first-time applicants, many are returning. Everyone goes through an interview process with Wilson and the rest of the JC student support team. Then it’s a matching game. “We’re looking for applicants who are dedicated,” Wilson says, “as well as for diverse backgrounds and personality traits that will complement our students.”

Senior Melissa Watras has been part of the program since fall 2008. “When I first met my mentee, she was very unreceptive. It was hard to believe that she wanted me there,” she says. Then Watras was out sick. When she returned, something had changed in the girl. “She was so excited to see me, and she just popped open,” Watras says.

"I tell new mentors, 'I want you to listen to me, but I really want you to listen to each other.'"
- Dan McCormack

“We talk about how we’re in the business of small victories,” McCormack says. “Most times it’s subtle. It’s not going to be one of those, ‘I’m glad you’re here,’ things. That’s just not going to happen.”

Instead, the student who was truant starts showing up every day. And the one who always received detention stops getting into trouble. According to Wilson, academic performance sometimes improves as the students start trying to please their mentors.

For Watras, once the connection was made it was up to her to cultivate it. She bought her student a daily planner, which the girl used. Watras also offered her a new perspective on education. For some students, their mentor is an introduction to college. They may not think it’s an option, or they have deluded ideas of what college is like. Watras found that to be true: “She didn’t want to go to college and didn’t understand that she had to work hard now to get something later.”

Binghamton University senior Melissa Watras talks with Victoria Miller, a Johnson City Middle School student who will be paired with a mentor from Binghamton University this year. Watras has been a mentor at the school since fall 2008.

In the same respect, it’s also an eye-opening experience for the undergraduates. “The mentors realize that their education was pretty well determined. And that maybe their parents’ expectations weren’t so bad,” McCormack says.

The JC Mentor Program also requires mentors to attend weekly seminars. These sessions keep them abreast of issues relating to the students they are paired with, provide learning opportunities for new mentors and introduce techniques for success.

“They learn what it means to be a mentor, how to build rapport and even how to end the relationship,” explains seminar leader Erin Jennings, career counselor and peer assistant coordinator for the Career Development Center. “We also cover issues like No Child Left Behind, absenteeism and educating children with disabilities.”

McCormack believes that returning students are the program’s most valuable resource. “A big factor in orienting first-time mentors are people like Watras,” he says. “I tell new mentors, ‘I want you to listen to me, but I really want you to listen to each other.’” For this reason, many seminars are tailored to the troubles first-time mentors face. They ask questions, and those who’ve been there before share what worked and what didn’t.

Today, Watras serves as the student recruiter. While the number of mentors has grown in the past couple of years, it’s still a fraction of what’s needed. Nearly two-thirds of the middle-school students who sign up for the program will not receive a mentor. And a mentor can find that he’s not only a role model to the student he’s been assigned, but to that student’s friends, as well.

“A lot of people might sign up to get the two credits, but they get involved and love it,” Watras says. “It’s challenging, but you just need to be able to listen and have a head on your shoulders.”

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