A dozen Union College students — all men of color — met last week to finalize plans for a new mentoring program that will bring about 30 Schenectady students to campus each week.
The black and Latino college students, hailing from New York City, Georgia, Texas, Schenectady and elsewhere, will serve as confidants, tutors and friends to the Schenectady students — seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders who are also young men of color.
The program’s organizers hope that by bringing the students to campus and letting them spend time with college students who look like them and hail from similar backgrounds they will begin to picture a similar path for themselves.
“The sheer presence of being young men of color on a college campus, you are giving these kids something to look up to,” Jason Benitez, director of the Union Office of Multicultural Affairs, told the college mentors during the planning meeting. “It is so, so, so important we do what we can to not have these young men fall through the cracks.”
The new mentorship program is part of My Brother’s Keeper, an organization established by former President Barack Obama. New York state has joined a coalition of programs under the My Brother’s Keeper umbrella, giving out grants to support programs like the one recently established in Schenectady.
Schenectady’s My Brother’s Keeper program also supports bias training for teachers and staff and funds the position of Brian Ledbetter, a former Schenectady High School basketball star who works out of Oneida Middle School and is the district’s point person in the mentors program.
“It’s to give them a sense they are not alone in this journey, and that these things can be achieved,” Ledbetter said of the program’s aims. “Just being on campus, having that experience is enough to see yourself differently. … Success is not this far-fetched thing. It’s right there, and we have control over it.” he said. “We want these young men to know they are capable of everything and anything.”
Dean Akinleye, a state Health Department employee, 2002 Union graduate and part of Union’s Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity alumni chapter, is working with Ledbetter to organize and oversee the mentor program.
Beginning this month, the Schenectady students will visit Union on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. For three hours each visit, the students will share their thoughts in group discussions, burn energy with recreational activities, eat dinner and receive help with homework.
The mentors, who will be paid up to $12 per hour for working with the younger students, were chosen for their ability to relate with students of color growing up in communities like Schenectady. The message to the city school students is simple: These college students have been through a lot of the same challenges you have, and look, they are in college.
“When you are a kid and you grow up in a difficult background, it’s very tough to imagine being in college and making an impact on where you go,” said Joel Jailall, a Union freshman who grew up in Schenectady.
Once on campus, the Schenectady students will break into groups of 10, partnering with three or four Union students. Sitting in so-called restorative circles, the students will be asked to share with their mentors and classmates issues they are having in class or at home. The conversations will also be designed to regularly reinforce the importance of academics and the potential they have to perform and achieve in school.
“It’s so important for them to come to a college campus and see someone like them doing it and succeeding here,” Benitez said.
Each campus visit will also include recreation time and a meal in a Union dining hall. They also plan to sign up other Union students to serve as tutors to work with the Schenectady students in academic areas they are struggling with.
A group of Oneida Middle School students last week said they look forward to meeting their new mentors.
“I want a new experience. I want to meet new people; I want to get a figure that I can look up to,” eighth-grader Moses Grant said. “They are older and have been through some of the stuff I’ve been through.”
The students said they weren’t sure yet what they wanted to do in college or in life, but they were eager to get advice from current college students.
“I don’t know yet what I want to do in college,” eighth-grader Will Reid said. “Hopefully, they can help me learn more about what I want to do in the future.”
And at least some of the Schenectady students said they have been on the Union campus before, a place they already can picture themselves, though not the only college option open to them.
“I feel like it’s a place I can be someday,” Will said of Union. “I also feel like I can have other options.”