Some of the sixth-graders hadn’t put much thought into their future. But by the end of the semester, they had dreams for their careers and goals to help get them there.
Twenty-four Mercer students worked with 48 students at Ballard Hudson Middle School during the spring semester for Mercer Mentors, a new program created by the University’s Office of Service Learning.
Dr. Mary Alice Morgan, senior vice provost for service learning, and Lauren Shinholster, coordinator of community engagement, put together a unique curriculum and spent the last year building a relationship with leaders at Ballard Hudson. They tested the program with five mentors in fall 2018 and ran a full pilot during the spring semester.
Mercer has worked with the community surrounding Ballard Hudson in the past, making the middle school a logical choice for this new project, Dr. Morgan said. It’s a high-need neighborhood, and the program allows Mercer to step in during a key time in these kids’ lives.
“There’s a lot of research that’s been done about transitional points in young people’s academic careers that can make or break their succeeding in high school and graduating,” Dr. Morgan said. “One of those transitional points is sixth grade, and the next one is eighth to ninth grade. We know that those are pivotal times, both developmentally and in terms of academics.”
Ballard Hudson chose the mentees, looking for students who would most benefit from the experience and be engaged, Shinholster said. Mercer had a diverse selection of mentors, including student-athletes on the basketball, football and track teams, service-learning students and other volunteers.
The mentors and mentees met at the middle school once a week for about 70 minutes. They did team-building activities as well as activities that focused on social and emotional well-being and how to navigate school, family and life challenges.
Lessons were devoted to the mentees’ interests and gifts, how their talents can be applied to the real world, college and career options, and college resources. Each middle-schooler created a “vision board” outlining hopes for the future, and those projects are now displayed in the hallways of their school. The program gave the students a real sense of purposefulness, Dr. Morgan said.
“It just makes the idea of college less of a vague intention and more something they can act upon,” she said. “It helps them understand that school is not a place where you just put in your time, but that time is well spent because it’s putting you on a trajectory for the future.”
The participants visited Mercer’s Macon campus on April 4. They attended a brass ensemble concert, watched an art demonstration and created their own art, ate lunch in the cafeteria, toured Plunkett and Legacy halls, checked out the University Center, took photos in front of the Bear statue and played games on the football field.
“They really wanted to know what college life was like. Being able to bring that into clear view for them and how that could translate into future careers was really helpful,” Shinholster said. “It was nice for them to see that (college) wasn’t just all work. I don’t think they fully realized how fun it is to be in college and what the education allows you to do.”
That trip to Mercer will change the course of some of their lives, said Javonne Darling, counselor at Ballard Hudson Middle. Many of the middle-schoolers told Darling they wanted to go to college after the visit.
“I actually see that they recognize there is life and opportunity outside of just their neighborhoods and communities,” he said.
The mentees loved hearing their mentors’ personal stories and details on how they decided what to do after high school, Dr. Morgan said. They developed natural, genuine bonds like sibling relationships, with a little bit of accompanying “hero worship.”
The young students were open-minded and eager to listen to knowledge and advice from their mentors, said Ashley Conlon, a freshman double-majoring in Spanish and art.
It was rewarding for the middle-schoolers to be able to spend time with role models in a relaxed, fun environment that was free of rigid expectations, Shinholster said. The mentors saw so much promise in their mentees and felt an obligation to be a positive influence on them.
Gavan George, a freshman business major and member of the football team, said the program helped the middle-schoolers realize they can be more their circumstances and college is attainable. He didn’t know something as simple as talking to kids once a week could have such a big impact on their futures.
“I think they were a little surprised at how quickly the students took to them and how much they actually meant to those students,” Shinholster said.
Jose Gonzalez, a freshman double-majoring in journalism and graphic design, wished he would have had a program like Mercer Mentors when he was in middle school to help prepare him for the world. The sixth-graders’ eyes were opened to new possibilities for applying and honing their talents.
The middle-schoolers gave Elijah Hawkins, a third-year student double-majoring in biology and women’s and gender studies, more motivation to work toward his own goals so he can make them proud. He wants to show his mentees what he has accomplished and encourage them to fight for their dreams too.
The mentors wrote the mentees encouraging letters at the end of the semester, and the mentees were so happy when they read them, Conlon said. There were some stern but compassionate conversations during the last couple sessions, as the mentors urged the younger students to do better in their studies, Shinholster said. Many students said they planned to work harder in school so they could meet their goals, Dr. Morgan said.
Mercer and Ballard Hudson plan to continue these relationships in the future, Dr. Morgan said. The Mercer students hope to be able to follow up with their mentees and continue to support them.
In addition, the Office of Service Learning is working on a high school mentoring program and hopes to do a small pilot study during the next academic year.