SCHENECTADY -- Alisa James-Polite, who runs Hairouna Hair Studio in Schenectady, went back to school at SUNY Schenectady County Community College to study nutrition. She hopes to use the degree to expand her business.
Sometimes, though, the school and personal work piles up and she wonders what she got herself into.
“Many times, when things get difficult, I want to drop out; I’m wondering if it’s worth doing this,” she said.
But that’s when James-Polite can turn to her mentor at SUNY Schenectady for assistance in working through her challenges. Often, those discussions are enough to remind her of her interest in education and her plans to continue building her business.
“I feel motivated, I get pushed a little, I reason it out,” she said of meeting with her mentor. “I’m thinking about the outcome, I’m thinking there’s so much more I can do.”
Babette Faehmel, an associate professor of history and coordinator of the college’s mentor program, said about 70 students are currently participating. About 30 staff and faculty mentors work with the students, some in groups and others one-on-one. After initial meetings and discussions, the mentor and student being mentored agree to how the partnership will work, outlining how often they will meet and what they expect from each other. The program largely leaves it up to students and their mentors to work out what the mentorship will look like.
“It’s all very individualized, because every student needs something else,” Faehmel said.
The program has not only sent students to conferences and events around the country, but has hosted on-campus events as well. On Tuesday, the program hosted an empowerment seminar by Brandon Frame, founder of the nonprofit Black Man Can, which works to educate, empower and motivate boys and young men of color.
“Once you define who you are, you can go out and redefine the world and make change,” Frame said at the event.
Imari Shaw, an anatomy and physiology teacher in her first year at SUNY Schenectady, said she joined the mentorship program as a way to connect with and support students. She said it is especially important in science fields to have someone who can offer advice and direction.
“For me, I wanted to reach out to students who want to major in science,” Shaw said. “I remember myself growing up through education, you need a mentor in order to go on [to advanced programs], to get you going in that direction, to support you.”
Shaw, who earned a medical degree in Poland before relocating to the Capital Region, said she views her job as connecting students from diverse backgrounds with the common material of the hard sciences.
“I look at students, we are all so different, and my job is to focus on [the science] and bringing them in from different walks of life, bring that to them in the best way I can,” she said.
Developing a mentoring program was among SUNY Schenectady President Steady Moono's top priorities when he arrived at the college, arguing mentors can help students get through rough times that might otherwise cause them to drop out of school all together. Moono said the student he mentored may well have dropped out of school if he didn’t have a mentor.
“Life has been tough for him, incredibly tough,” Moono said of a student. “The opportunities we have to talk, to encourage him … all of that stuff has helped him stay in school.”
Moono said the mentoring relationship boils down to being there for students when they are most in need of support.
“It’s an opportunity to have someone advocate for you, listen [to] you, someone you navigate the issues [that] come your way,” Moono said. “Mentoring is really about hope, giving students hope.”
As the college looks to expand students paired with mentors, Moono said more needs to be done to convince students of the value of a mentor. He said some people feel like taking on a mentor is a sign of weakness. “We are supposed to be tough and figure it [out] ourselves,” Moono said of the perception.
But he pointed out that many people get help from mentors throughout their lives and professional careers.
“All of us at all levels, we have mentors, vision supporters who come along to support us,” he said.