PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 27, No. 12, Jan. 17, 2008
UI employees gratified in mentoring local students
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
How would you like a “job” that requires no special skills, just a one-hour-a-week commitment – at a time of your choosing – and offers life-changing opportunities? Well, then, consider becoming a mentor.
For staff members Diane Anderson and Derrick Burson, who mentor students in local schools through the C-U One-to-One Mentoring Program, that hour each week they spend with their students is precious.
Anderson, a research and education specialist in landscape horticulture in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences, is in her fourth year mentoring Cassie, a ninth-grader at Urbana High School.
Burson, a media communications specialist in the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, has mentored DJ, now a sophomore at Urbana High School, since fall 2003.
Begun in 1994, the Champaign-Urbana One-to-One Mentoring Program matches adult volunteers with youth in the Champaign and Urbana schools. Teachers, staff members, counselors and even parents recommend students for the program who may be underachieving academically, have erratic attendance or struggle with poor self-esteem. The majority of children enter the program as sixth-graders, and mentors are encouraged to make a long-term commitment, ideally staying with their students until high school graduation. Students who stay in the program until they graduate receive a $2,000 scholarship for continuing education.
The students meet with their mentors for an hour each week during school hours and engage in activities of their choice, perhaps playing games, surfing the Web, or talking. Burson and his student started out just shooting hoops in the gym every week, and their relationship has slowly blossomed to where Burson has become a sounding board for him.
Mentors are not intended to be tutors. “There is no academic component,” said Julie Healey, the site coordinator at Booker T. Washington elementary school in Champaign. “You’re really there to be the kid’s friend, and anybody can do that. The kind of person who should be a mentor is someone who enjoys kids and who is going to stick with it, who’s going to come back next week and the week after that, even if they sit with their child for an hour the first time and neither of them says a word. I think every pair goes through that, and it always gets better.”
Burson decided to join the program after reading an article about mentoring in “Inside Illinois” in 2001. “It sounded like something neat to do, and I wanted to give back to the community. I’m around college students as part of my job but not younger students.” Burson missed the interaction with young people that he had when he had worked for a youth athletics program in his hometown of Pekin during high school and college.
He mentored one boy for a semester, until the boy’s family moved to another school district, and was later paired with DJ.
Anderson treasures the time she spends with Cassie, but made sure Cassie knew that Anderson’s workload might sometimes prevent her from getting to the school for their appointment. “As long as the kid knows that it’s not anything to do with them and that you’ll come when you can,” it’s not a problem, Anderson said.
When work causes conflicts, or when there’s a birthday to celebrate, or Cassie’s out of school for the summer and bored, Anderson makes arrangements with Cassie’s parents for them to get together on a weekend. They’ve gone to movies, to art exhibitions, out to lunch, and gotten manicures together, dressed up and gone out to dinner.
“She’s also helped me stick plugs – plants – in the ground at the Arboretum, and she loved that,” Anderson said. “She thought it was great fun, so it’s a way we can be together when I can’t get there during the week.”
For many children, their mentors’ visit is the highlight of their school week and is eagerly anticipated.
“I think in the beginning there’s an allure for the kids because they get to leave class to see their mentors, but quickly the kids and the mentors develop this bond, and they’re excited to see this person in their life,” Healey said. “The kids with mentors get ‘rock star’ status, and kids come to me asking if they can get mentors.”
“This Christmas, the kids got to make jewelry” to give as presents for their friends, Anderson said. “My mentee gave me one of the pieces she’d made, and that made me cry. When they appreciate it … sometimes it takes years before you know that, but when they do, it’s really meaningful.”
Beth Welbes, senior coordinator of research programming at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs and an external evaluator for the U.S. Department of Education, which funded C-U One-to-One from October 2004 through September 2007, conducted a recent assessment of the C-U One-to-One Mentoring Program. The assessment showed that 48 percent of the students participating in the mentoring program who had histories of unexcused absences had fewer unexcused absences while in the program, and 71 percent of the program participants demonstrated academic improvement in at least one core subject area, such as science, math or English.
“Mentoring is not hard,” said Barbara Linder, program coordinator for the C-U One-to-One Mentoring Program. “One hour per week only adds up to about 30-35 hours per year during the school year. Yet somehow the relationships that are built in that time have the power to make the difference between a student’s coming to school or staying home, between studying for a test or blowing it off. I’ve seen this personally and it still astounds me.”
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
The mentoring program sponsored by the Facilities and Services Division aims not only to help elementary school children navigate the sometimes rocky roads of childhood, but also to provide the children and their parents with a broader view of the educational and employment opportunities available at the UI. The program, which emphasizes the importance of staying in school and exposes students to the variety of jobs available in the construction field, is a component of the F&S strategic plan. Also it is intended to increase diversity among the workforce and serve as a pilot program for collaborative relationships among local schools and other campus units.
Through a partnership with Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign, F&S staff members mentor children at the school through the C-U One-to-One Mentoring Program. BTW, a kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school in north Champaign, has the largest minority population – 39 percent African-American, 41 percent Hispanic – and its students’ families have the lowest socio-economic status among schools in the district.
Nine staff members signed up for the mentoring program at the first recruitment lunch in October, and four more staff members expressed interest at the second recruitment lunch Jan. 11, said Maureen Banks, director of the Division of Safety and Compliance.
In addition, several other staff members who joined the C-U One-to-One program prior to the inception of the F&S strategic plan initiative are continuing relationships with the students they mentor, who have moved on to middle school or high school.
“It may sound selfish, but I come back to work refreshed,” said Fred Hahn, an engineer who joined the mentoring program in October. “It is an energizing experience to be around these kids.”
The father of two grown sons, Hahn decided “it seemed a shame to let all that experience go to waste.” Hahn is mentoring Anthony, a “very bright and talkative” third-grader, whom he meets with weekly at the school. Although Anthony’s family members were unable to attend when he played a role as a solder in BTW’s performance of “The Nutcracker” in December, Hahn was in the audience, and noted that Anthony “waved wildly” at him from the stage.
“It is so important to have a male influence in these young men’s lives,” said Hahn, who added that he had the benefit of a supportive family and positive male role models while he was growing up, an advantage that many young people today do not have.
Male mentors are desperately needed in the C-U One-to-One program, which declared Jan. 10 “Putting the MEN in Mentoring Day” in an effort to challenge more men to take on mentoring relationships, said Barbara Linder, program coordinator.
In addition to promoting individual mentoring, the F&S program gives students opportunities for hands-on exploration of jobs and interaction with staff member volunteers at the annual Take Your Children to Work Day. At the 2007 event, BTW students participated in a variety of activities, which included learning about the locksmith trade, investigating the tools and equipment used by workers in the Garage and Car Pool, and seeing how safety practices can prevent on-the-job injuries.
F&S plans to expand the program in the future, providing BTW students with construction information, advice and guidance in designing an outdoor classroom. BTW faculty members and students will then begin raising funds for the actual construction.
Mentor training sessions:
Volunteers must participate in an interview/screening session and undergo a criminal background check. Mentors attend one initial two-hour training session and other training sessions, usually brown bag lunches and breakfasts, as needed.
Before attending the training, applicants should register by e-mailing Angie Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org. Applicants also should complete the online application form at www.cu1to1.org. To mentor at Urbana schools, e-mail the form to Barbara Linder, email@example.com; to mentor at Champaign schools, e-mail the form to Lauren Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
University employees may use an hour of release time per week for mentoring students in local elementary and secondary schools, as provided by policy in the Campus Administrative Manual.
News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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