MentorU, a joint program of five colleges in Jackson, launched their third year of the program this month to continue to mentor middle school students and help them explore future college and career possibilities.
Sixth to eighth grade students at North Parkway Middle School meet every other week with a college student or a faculty member from five local colleges: Union University, Lane College, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, University of Memphis at Lambuth and Jackson State Community College.
The program began as an idea of Mary Ann Poe, dean of social work and director for the Center for Just and Caring Communities, who saw the value of the resources that colleges could offer to the young people of the community as they are thinking about the future.
“The earlier you start helping people think toward a future vocation, career, college – those kind of things – the more likelihood that you’d be able to help people stay on that trajectory toward good decisions and a positive future,” Poe said.
MentorU launched in the fall of 2015 when Union’s president, Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver, presented Poe’s idea to the five colleges. It began as a program for just sixth graders but expanded to include seventh graders last year. This year will be the first time to include eighth graders in the curriculum, and the focus for the eighth graders will be different than those of the sixth and seventh graders: getting ready for entering into high school.
“Almost all of the ones that started in sixth grade are still choosing to be a part of it,” Poe said. “That’s a good sign that the program is tapping into something.”
The plan for MentorU, Poe said, is to continue following the kids through high school and hopefully all the way to a college or career. Poe sees MentorU as a way to help middle school students begin to feel comfortable around campus and college students so that it feels accessible to them.
“One value to having college student mentors is that they are modeling what we’re wanting these students to aspire to be – a college student – at some point,” Poe said. “If they get connected with college students, that seems more accessible.”
The five colleges also take turns hosting a campus visit throughout the year. The first campus visit was hosted by TCAT, where students were exposed to subjects of mechanics, welding and other technical skills. Lane College will host the next visit on Oct. 28, and Union’s campus visit will be held in February. During the campus visits, students are able to explore possibilities by being introduced to different of areas of study.
“It’s to expose the students to college life and show them the many options available to them,” Marie Bentley, a MSW student at Union and coordinator of MentorU, said. “We want to encourage them to further their education and set concrete goals.”
Bentley also sees the value of the mentoring program to the mentors themselves.
“It shows them that they can make a difference just by being kind to someone,” Bentley said. “They can have an impact on somebody just by being their friend and being consistent.”
The mentoring meetings usually consist of catching up on homework together, eating snacks or playing games. Primarily, students work through a curriculum with their mentors. Workbooks and activities focus on everything from developing healthy character traits and setting goals to explorations of personality traits and career options.
“The thing that makes a difference is the positive adult in their lives that is consistent, caring and nurturing,” Bentley said. “That relationship is what we’re really trying to get at.”
Photo courtesy of Sol Bee Park