A partnership between Stanislaus State and Turlock Unified School District 15 years in the making has grown into one of the largest college mentoring programs in the country, impacting the lives of at-risk elementary, junior high and high schoolers by connecting them with university students who hope to make a difference.
Studies have shown that having a positive adult connection plays an important role in a student’s future success, which is why Stanislaus State professor and former Criminal Justice Department Chair Dr. Phyllis Gerstenfeld and TUSD Director of Student Services Gil Ogden were compelled to pioneer the mentoring program in 2004. Now overseen by Stanislaus State Criminal Justice lecturer Dr. Tim Helfer, the program has evolved from just 15 volunteers in its first year to 173 student mentors this semester.
The idea behind the program, Ogden said, is provide role models to TUSD students who let them know that they do have a future and college is possible. Mentors develop a caring relationship with students in grades TK-12, helping meet their fundamental developmental needs for belonging, security, respect, identity, power, mastery and meaning.
This school year alone, over 300 TUSD students have connected with Stanislaus State mentors. A majority of the students are dealing with attendance issues, behavior problems or low grades, and often come from foster or single-parent homes where the parent is working and may need extra help with their child. There are also high-achieving students in the program, Ogden added, who can benefit from a positive connection in their life. Oftentimes, students are referred to the mentoring program by a principal, counselor or teacher, however, any person can suggest a student be mentored, including parents.
“The impact on the students has been amazing. We have students that were non-attending and about to drop out start attending each day. Students that were being suspended for fighting or disrupting class change their behavior,” Ogden said. “Most importantly, some of the students started attending college, which had previously been an impossible goal, and we have now had multiple students attend college and become mentors to TUSD students themselves.”
While TUSD students benefit from the program immensely through one-on-one, face-to-face interaction with their mentor, the university students in the mentoring program who are pursuing their degrees in Criminal Justice also take away plenty from their protégées, Helfer said. A majority of career paths in Criminal Justice involve communicating with juveniles in some way or another, whether it be through juvenile justice itself or other jobs like law enforcement, corrections, forensic science or legal studies.
This was a driving factor behind Helfer pushing for participation in the program to become a requirement for all those who pursue the major, he said.
“They’re really there to listen, because this may be the child’s only person who has the time to listen to them,” Helfer said. “Hopefully, we’re assisting our students to become better law enforcement officer, probation officers, attorneys, corrections officers and any other career in Criminal Justice, because they all tie into the youth.”
Jennifer Carrera is in her second semester of participation in the mentoring program, and is helping her protégée, a junior at Roselawn High School, improve her attendance. She’s also helped her student overcome her fear of speaking to other students at school, Carrera said, and the student is now comfortable interacting with her classmates.
“Relating to an educated mentor close to their age may get students to open up more,” Carrera said. “For CSU Stanislaus students, it benefits us because it’s a hands-on experience; it’s a perfect resource to gain experience from and to get a better understanding of the different personalities and the necessities of each student.”
Ogden hopes that each student walks away from their sessions with a mentor feeling resilient, he said.
“Resilience enables them to overcome the adversity in their lives, believes in themselves and achieve their dreams,” he said. “And, ultimately, to develop the empathy and understanding to become mentors themselves.”
Ogden pointed to a 1992 study which found 70 to 80 percent of students growing up in overwhelmingly negative conditions demonstrated healthy adjustment and achievement when schools are sensitive to them and provide supportive activities, like the mentoring sessions. Specifically, the mentoring program helps students see what it takes to be a successful college student, connecting them to college students with similar backgrounds who persevered and have thrived in a higher education setting.
In addition to resilience, this instills hope in TUSD students as well.
“TUSD students see that the college student mentor has had similar life experiences and now attends college, and they start to think, ‘Hey, this is something that I can do,’” Ogden said. “They believe in themselves, and start to work harder and do the necessary things to be successfully academically.”