As the subtitle of this essay says, "Can college students effectively navigate the intricacies of mentoring high-risk youth?
Applying for Success
The stuffy classroom on the top floor of Pleasant High School is decked out in whimsical compilations of student work, laminated posters, and butcher paper brainstorms. College Access Block is a daily 7th and 8th period class facilitated by college students and a recent college graduate that satisfies Pleasant’s senior internship requirement. Although first semester focused mainly on the college application process and one large community mural project, second semester is built around discovering and defining personal identity through art projects. Emphasis is still put on meeting graduation requirements, finding scholarships, and envisioning a successful entry into the post-high-school world. However, as the light at the end of the tunnel draws nearer, it becomes more difficult to gather a critical mass, especially on Friday afternoons, without the promise of a low-pressure environment.
College students in the College Access Block can be considered mentors, even though they are not assigned to specific one-on-one partnerships. They are role models who “demonstrate qualities that adolescents might wish to emulate” (Rhodes 45). They represent various routes and methods taken to arrive at one possible definition of success: studying at a private liberal arts college. As the year has progressed, students on both sides of the mentoring equation have become aware of expectations, standards, and goals they have set for each other and for themselves. One of the unique tenets of the College Access Block is depicting mentorship as a two-way exchange rather than as a top-down hierarchy. High school students are aware of their capacity to shift their assignments on a large scale and, on the small scale, their responsibility to their college counterparts to dig a little bit deeper in critical thinking than another course might require. In return, college students try to be advocates on behalf of the students in the class, offering recommendation letters, help with projects, and an open space for dialogue.
Many scholars have weighed in on the ability of mentors to empower youth and the difficult task of helping disenfranchised students see their own agency. In the College Access Block, the tension between friendship and mentorship is understandable, especially considering the closeness in age of all parties. As an observer, I have been able to name a few struggles and a number of successes in the classroom. Some students in the class seem to feel that their school misrepresents them, that they are not provided with appropriate opportunities, that they are not treated as adults. On any given day, students make offhand comments about their school being “stupid,” and “way too easy,” which can be attributed in part to a normal amount of teenage apathy, but can also be seen as an indicator of students feeling helpless, feeling a lack of agency. College mentors have found a contradiction in sympathizing with systemic problems and encouraging students to apply their individual capacity to overcome obstacles.
The struggle between pushing back against gaps in the system and finding a way to navigate within regulations to individual achievements was particularly apparent on one Friday afternoon. A student, Dee, was working on an application to City Year, a program that would allow her to work on community initiatives for social justice while still being available to take care of her young son. Dee’s application was supervised by a number of college students, but on this day she was working one-on-one with a college student to finalize, edit, and submit the essay portion of her application. Although she was passionate about her essay topics and her hopeful acceptance to the program, channeling that passion into written form proved difficult. She barely finished before the end of class, leaving the editing to be completed by her mentor. After the college students left the classroom, they received a call notifying them that Dee’s application had not been saved before the computer unexpectedly shut off—a technological failure that was not any one person’s fault, but an unfortunate example of how Weber’s “rationalized” world can be disturbed by the unexpected (Herman & Mandell 1). As Herman and Mandell describe, “technological gratifications” eliminate the need for a physical presence when handing in an application and force a hard and fast time constraint on the application’s deadline. This makes it so that few events are unexpected when filling out an online application—until something goes wrong. What can be understood from Herman and Mandell, though, is that having an unexpected interruption that results in a waiting period can be an educative experience, rich with “illuminations and wonders,” (Herman and Mandell 9).
Various forms of resolution were discussed among the college students, who eventually decided to encourage Dee to reapply because she was a worthy applicant and would benefit from the program’s structure. While her acceptance was not certain, it was worth Dee’s effort to experience the application process. The identified advantages included learning how to self-advocate, how to meet deadlines, and how to ask for extensions when compromising circumstances arise.
It took a great deal of convincing for Dee to be willing to rewrite her essays, which tossed mentors directly in the middle of the tension between sympathizing and demanding a particular level of achievement from a student. Nobody wanted to pressure Dee to the extent that she would feel overwhelmed, but nobody wanted to give her the option of quitting. Could Dee be an agent of her own success? Definitely, since she had completed the same application previously. Could the “tough love” of six mentors support her in that process? Most likely, but it could also perhaps drive her in the opposite direction, away from the pressure of accountability.
The efficacy of the college mentors speaks to Rhodes’ discussion of modeling one definition of success, which leads mentees to imagine their own promising future. “With their increased perspective-taking abilities, adolescents become actively involved in shaping and evaluating the course of their lives,” (47). Rather than panicking to Dee about the possibility of failure, college students navigated a fine line between reassuring Dee of her worthiness, and offering her resources and open lines of communication with City Year so that she could make a choice to complete the application with a deadline extension.
Through this example, I hope to have named some of the struggles encountered by college student mentors in the high school setting. Defining success is an evolving process, and demanding accountability is challenging but necessary. I see Pleasant High students finding a voice through the College Access Block: their agency is emerging in an individual process rather than as the result of systemic change. While there are inequities that will undoubtedly impede some of these high school students’ progress, they, alongside their mentors, are learning how to fit an unequal system onto the path and result to which they aspire. Instead of perpetual frustration, these students have found agency—a means and motivation to change their futures. High school students find choices in a system that tends to limit free will. College mentors find opportunities to identify their triumphs, no matter how seemingly small, and are able to redefine their model of success to fit a variety of outcomes. They both find opportunities to pause, turning struggles into accomplishments.
Mandell, Alan and Lee Herman. The Instantaneous and the Wait: Disenchantment and Wonder in Education. SUNY/Empire State College. 1999.
Rhodes, Jean E. Stand By Me: The Risks and Rewards of Mentoring Today’s Youth. Harvard University Press. 2002.