Matthew Wallace is graduating from California State University, Stanislaus in just a matter of weeks. But as a young man growing up it was unlikely he would have made it this far. He did time in juvenile hall, but eventually he turned his life around thanks to caring adults and his own drive. Now, Wallace is playing a role in a troubled young person’s life, a fifth-grader who comes from a home in turmoil that includes poverty and close family members serving prison time.
Wallace is one of more than 100 CSU students who help 150 Turlock Unified School District students this semester in one the nation’s largest university mentoring programs.
In the past three months the student’s attendance is up, his grades are up and he has no major disciplinary problems.
“He had no authority role, no father in his life. I think he just needed someone to talk to,” said Wallace. “Maybe if I had something like this things would have gone differently for me.”
The program is full of success stories for both mentors and young students. Seven years ago the Turlock Unified School District teamed up with the university’s service learning program so CSU students could help at-risk students achieve academic success. That year only 15 mentors gave their time to the cause.
The bulk of CSU students in the mentoring program come from the criminal justice department, which offers a major concentrations in juvenile justice. Each of the department’s four concentration requirements mandates a juvenile justice class and they afford students mentoring opportunities.
CSU professor Tim Helfer has served as a juvenile courts judge and public defender, and now teaches several juvenile justice classes.
“We tell our students that they have a responsibility to Turlock to find and help young people. Our hope is that these mentors are good listeners for those young people. It is important to give a damn about these young people — to be role models for these kids,” he said.
One of his students that “gives a damn” is 2006 Pitman High School graduate Nita Zare, now a senior at CSU Stanislaus. Zare is mentoring a Pitman sophomore who was headed down the wrong path. The girl was involved in fights at school and had a severely damaged relationship with her mother, not to mention she was falling behind in the classroom.
Zare said the girl has pulled her grades up from Ds and Fs to As and Bs.
“I feel like I helped improve her quality of life and I helped her to see that life is only as hard as you make it,” she said.
Jessica Shockley, a junior at CSU, is showing one eCademy senior the road to success.
“She didn’t want to go to college but now she is receiving a full-ride, $18,000 scholarship to a cosmetology school,” she explained.
TUSD officials appreciate the importance of the mentoring program. Trustee Grady Welch, who also serves his community as a parole officer, said his office has two interns who are involved with the mentoring program and he sees the difference it makes with the future agents.
Fellow Trustee Josh Bernard put the program into its best context.
“Every kid we save now is one we won’t have to put in jail later,” he said.