The heart monitor beeped steadily. Students took turns pressing a stethoscope to the patient’s chest, the intensity in their faces reflected in the one-way mirror on the other side of the room. They pulled the covers up at the bottom of the hospital bed and checked the patient’s foot for a pulse.
“How are you?” Taia Carter asked the patient.
“Good. I like your headband,” the patient replied.
Carter’s eyes popped wide open as gasps and babbles of excitement filled the cubicle-sized room of the Jackson State Community College nursing lab. The students dropped all pretensions of professionalism as surprise moved them to act like what they really are: sixth grade students playing with a computer-controlled mannequin as part of the MentorU program.
Until last fall, MentorU was just an idea simmering in the head of Mary Anne Poe, associate dean of social work.
“I had been thinking for some time about mentoring possibilities and particularly the kinds of resources that colleges and universities have to offer to kids in a community,” Poe said. “Especially young people that maybe don’t have the resources in their home to think about college and careers.”
According to mentoring.org, young adults who were at-risk for falling off track but had a mentor were 55 percent more likely to hold leadership positions and 78 percent more likely to volunteer regularly. After being in mentoring relationships, most students become mentors later in life.
Statistics like these motivated Poe to approach President Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver with her idea. He approved the idea and saw an opportunity to turn it into a community-building project, so he presented it at a breakfast meeting with the executive officers of the five colleges in Jackson: Union University, Lane College, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, University of Memphis at Lambuth and Jackson State Community College.
The five colleges collaborated to launch MentorU, a program for sixth grade students at North Parkway Middle School. The 32 students enrolled in the program meet with a college student or faculty member twice a month, and the colleges take turns hosting campus visits monthly.
When Union hosted the first campus visit in October, students learned about social work, engineering and conservation biology. Lane taught the students about music, introducing them to a drum line. At TCAT, students dressed up like nurses going into surgery, drove semi-trucks via simulation machine and learned about welding. At Lambuth, they visited the planetarium.
Jackson State Community College hosted the last campus visit of the semester in March. Despite 48-degree weather and fierce winds, the middle schoolers huddled in the student center eager to see their itinerary, which included visiting the nursing, physics and biology labs.
Carter handed her mentor, Emily Haley, junior social work major at Union, several photos printed on standard printing paper. Some showed her in a blue homecoming dress, smiling and posing with her friends. Others featured her in a blue and gold cheerleading uniform. These would be put into the “dream book” she and Haley are making.
“We have stuff of what I want to do in the future and what I did in the past year,” Carter said. “I’m excited to see it when it’s done.”
As Bruce Blanding, president of Jackson State Community College, watched the students mingle, he remembered the power of encouragement that shaped his life. After dropping out of high school, he joined the Marines and later attended a college that accepted him automatically because of his military service.
“I was pretty well convinced I didn’t belong [in college],” he said. “Sixth grade is really the point before they get stuck in a mindset of ‘I can’t cross that barrier.’ A brief idea has turned into a full-fledged program that I think will have long-term, positive implications. Just wait six years and see where they go.”
Getting to participate in various activities and be with friends are the students’ favorite parts of the program. Nidia Martinez said she loves playing Phase 10 and the cupcakes her mentor brings.
“They have Oreos on top and then, like Reese’s at the bottom,” she said.
“Sometimes they bring us slushies and pizza and cheeseburgers from Sonic. They’re awesome,” Nicholas Donald added, while Carter nodded. “I love my mentor. He’s kind, smart, interesting and nice.”
Carter said her mentor taught her to never be afraid of her aspirations. She wants to study nursing at Union. Martinez dreams of attending Harvard or Yale. Donald wants to become an artist.
“The involvement of a positive adult role model can shape the trajectory of a kid’s life,” Poe said. “If you want to make a difference, make a difference in the life of a young person.”