Whatcom View: Mentors help students succeed in school, life

Many of us have been fortunate to have benefitted from the good advice of mentors in our lives – perhaps a supportive parent, relative or teacher. But for some, role models can be absent, not readily apparent or even negative.

Years ago, when living in Green Bay, Wisconsin, I had a chance encounter with a 10-year-old fifth grader. When I asked the boy what he planned to be when he grew up, his answer stunned me – his father was in jail so he expected to end up in jail just like his father.

That conversation made me realize that little boy – and countless youth like him – could benefit from meaningful role models in their lives.

Over the past seven years, Western student mentors have provided over 175,000 hours of mentoring service.

Educators have long understood the connection between effective mentoring and success in school and life. Last week, educators from across the country discussed the many aspects of this topic at the National Mentoring Summit in Washington, D.C.

Western alumna Pamila Gant, with Mentoring Works Washington, and I presented at the National Mentoring Summit on Compass 2 Campus, a mentoring initiative that has shown increasing success sending thousands of college students out as mentors into local schools.

Compass 2 Campus, launched in 2009 at Western Washington University, was established by the Washington State Legislature in hopes of increasing the number of underrepresented, diverse, first-generation college students in higher education. Using a service learning model, Compass 2 Campus teaches college mentors culturally sensitive ways to build encouraging relationships with youth.

Service learning has been shown to be an effective way for college students to become actively engaged in their learning. Students can blend action and reflection into course curriculum. Yet, we also are finding that service sometimes means that privileged attitudes and practices are displayed in those service situations, often perpetuating inequitable educational endeavors.

Compass 2 Campus, which is primarily funded from grants and private sources, is training mentors to understand critical cultural consciousness so that their work with students builds community and encourages reciprocal interaction that develops mutual understanding and learning. Mentors learn best practice mentoring dispositions, learn about themselves and others and how to work toward effective change in our educational system.

The program is in 13 area elementary schools, 10 middle schools and eight high schools. Central Washington University has adopted a similar program. Mentors spend at least four hours a week in schools, engaged where teachers, administrators and students themselves feel they’re needed most; some help with after-school activities while others lead small group projects or provide one-on-one encouragement to students.

WWU students learn about the students’ aspirations and talk with them about their dreams and goals. Over the past seven years, Western student mentors have provided over 175,000 hours of mentoring service. Western mentors themselves are deeply enriched by the experience – learning a wide range of practical skills.

This summer, my husband Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University, and I will be leaving Western as we both retire and move to California. I will be retiring as director of Compass 2 Campus, but the program will continue on, with the full and strong support of the university, the community and the many schools the program serves. It has been a profound honor to have worked with so many dedicated, caring teachers and administrators in school districts throughout Whatcom and Skagit counties. A highpoint of my career has been to interact with our dedicated and inspiring Western student mentors, our supportive campus, and the beautiful children who are the real treasures of our community.

When I think back to that 10-year-old boy in Wisconsin, I hope his future was brighter than he supposed, and that a program like Compass 2 Campus and other mentoring programs across our state and nation continue to inspire, and to show that we will never give up on even one child!

Cyndie Shepard is executive director of Compass 2 Campus at Western Washington University. For more information online, go to wce.wwu.edu/c2c/compass-2-campus.