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Mentorship program looks to bond Schenectady, Union brothers

Mentorship program looks to bond Schenectady, Union brothers

'These people are my family, even though they are not my blood'
Mentorship program looks to bond Schenectady, Union brothers
Students in the Union College Mentoring Program get into a discussion at the Reamer College CampusCenter on May 15, 2018.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

The debate really flared on the most hot-button question of all: Batman or Spider-Man?

“Batman is rich and lonely,” one student said.

“Batman is a billionaire and probably gets more girls than Spider-Man ever has,” another rebutted.

Spider-Man has more friends and actual powers. Batman’s gear is all he needs.

The multicultural room in Union College’s Reamer Campus Center was full last week as groups of Schenectady middle school students and their Union mentors sparred over a series of hypothetical “would you rather” scenarios.

The mentors and mentees were all young men of color – the commonality that binds them together. As part of a mentorship program supported by former President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, they’ve gotten together at Union twice a week since late February.

“It’s good to get out, and it feels good to be able to express yourself and find people that are somewhat like you and you can relate to,” Central Park eighth-grader Antonio Rivera said Tuesday. “It’s a good vibe every time we come together. Also, there’s good food.”

During the debate, the questions flew at the students one after the other. Would you rather: travel to the future or to the past? No one attend your wedding or no one attend your funeral? Go up in space or down to the ocean floor? Die before your spouse or after? Go pro in the NBA or the NFL?

The teams were scored by making discreet arguments for a particular side of the question. First they brainstormed in two groups. Then they came together for a showdown, arguments and rebuttals flying back and forth as the students searched for every possible angle.

“Sometimes you may have to defend something you don’t totally agree with,” said Dean Akinleye, who manages the mentorship program that brings together about 20 Schenectady students with about 15 Union students.

On other days, they spend the first hour in more intimate groups -- called “restorative circles” -- discussing everything from college and middle school life to how healthy relationships work. They touch on subjects like how young men of color are portrayed and treated in society. But they also talk about their lives and backgrounds, the college students a constant reminder to the middle school students that they have others they can relate to and see success in.

“We talk about sex education, about how certain rappers are looked at, how black men are viewed, how white men are viewed,” said Fred Hernandez, one of the Union mentors. “We try to teach them a lot about how to act.”

He said the middle school students ask questions about what college life is like: They were amazed by the short hours in actual class but warned about the far greater homework load, Hernandez said. They’ve gotten tours of campus residence halls and other places college students congregate, but the middle school students were particularly impressed by Union’s food selection.

“They think it’s the greatest thing,” Hernandez said of the campus food. “We go here, so we really are not that psyched about it.”

The middle school students have been dropped off at Union on Tuesdays and Thursdays to participate in the three-hour long program, which celebrates with a special ceremony this week and stretches until the final session on June 7.

After an hour of debate or conversation, the students head off to Union’s fieldhouse or basketball courts or outdoor fields, letting loose energy in games of basketball, football and dodgeball.

Brian Ledbetter, who works directly with students as the Schenectady school district’s My Brother’s Keeper specialist, joins the Schenectady students at Union each week. If the middle school students pull an especially strong move against one of the college students then, maybe, they can take a crack at him, Ledbetter jested in a moment of trash talk with one of the Union students.

“You’ve got to beat a few people to get to me,” said Ledbetter, a former Schenectady basketball player who played college basketball at The College of Saint Rose, to the chagrin of some of the Union students. “I’m like a boss, you’ve got to unlock me.”

“You know the last five minutes of the game, the garbage time, it’s more like that,” the Union student retorted.

The middle school students count their victories on the court with just as much zeal as their points in the debate, and some of the middle school students said they planned to play basketball in college or make it to the NFL one day. But life’s about much more than sports, a point that’s made clear.

“It teaches you that colored men can come together, be successful, stop violence,” said eighth grader Jahiem Copeland. Copeland acknowledged his athletic dreams but also gave away a signal of his other goal.

“I don’t have a backup plan yet,” he said, then giving it a second thought. “Right now, the backup plan is I’m thinking about being a businessman or [entering] sports medicine.”

“We try to get them to see things other than basketball, how they can contribute to the world,” Hernandez said. “It brings me happiness to see these kids want to learn more about life.”

After the recreation hour, the students head back to the campus center for dinner in the dining hall and work with tutors or continued conversations about life. Pairing the Schenectady students with the Union mentors is an overt reminder that life is also about class and about building a career, as a scientist or a mathematician, a lawyer, a doctor or anything they want. At the start of Tuesday’s session, the Union students went in a circle to say their names and their majors. Business, politics, science, math, engineering, seemingly every field was covered by one of the Union students.

“They get to see their lives in the future,” Ledbetter said of the Schenectady students. “They get to see an engineer or a political science major … If that doesn’t make you believe you can go to college and succeed in the world, I don’t know what will.

Diron Kelly, a Union junior studying mathematics and one of the models for the younger students, said he was impressed by the maturity of the middle school students and humbled to be able to serve as a mentor for them.

He said the middle school students have been through “some things you wouldn’t imagine just looking at them.” He understands at least partly where they are coming from. Kelly grew up in a low-income neighborhood in a single-parent home in southwest Virginia and said he recognizes as his own many of the experiences the Schenectady students have described.

“[The program] shows students that there are people that go through certain struggles and issues at a young age and are able to make something out of it,” Kelly said as he watched the middle school students chase after each other in the gym, detailing work with an environmental consultancy he has done. “I was there but also got to this point.”

The middle school students said they could relate to their older mentors as well.

“These people are my family, even though they are not my blood,” Oneida seventh-grader Devin Howie said. “It’s about how to be a man and a good brother. Like the name of the program, My Brother’s Keeper, we are all our brothers.”

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