Mentors catalyze learning outside the classroom

By Gisele Garraway 

One of my first (and favorite) bosses often sagely pronounced:  “People rise to the level of your expectations for them.”  We owe all kids, especially kids growing up in poverty and adverse circumstances to set high expectations for their academic success. My personal experience demonstrates adult mentors  — caring supporters outside a child’s family — can have a durable and transformative effect.

I was blessed with parents who took my academic development very seriously. Every day after work my father would ask: “Did you get your lesson?” He’d grown up in the segregated South being forced to drink from separate water fountains and attend separate and unequal schools; so, he desired a different future for me. 

During my grade school years, my dad religiously attended PTA meetings and rose to become president of the Virginia state PTA to fight for quality education in our small town. Meanwhile, my mother worked part time to ensure she was home to oversee homework. She often lamented her career options were limited without a college degree; she wanted a different future for me.

My parents’ involvement and high expectations spurred academic success for me. They ensured I had perfect attendance and devoted time to study; so, consequently my report card was littered with As. At the end of one marking period, I informed them that since a classmate’s parents paid them a cash bounty for every A and every B grade, they owed me a hefty sum. They scoffed that it was my JOB to learn. Equally important to these unabashed high expectations, was the learning that happened outside of home and school. Several mentors from my community stepped up to invest in me and provided invaluable life lessons beyond “book” learning.  

One mentor exemplar was Mrs. Bessie Williamson. In the sixth grade, I was one of the final two in the city spelling bee but ultimately lost to Tommy Maddox, a kid from the wealthy side of Petersburg. The next Sunday morning at St. Stephen’s Episcopal, parishioner Bessie Williamson approached me saying she’d read in the newspaper that I lost to “that boy” and that it was “a shame” because she was certain he wasn’t smarter than me. I had my doubts. Her hypothesis was that I wasn’t prepared. She told me to have my mother bring me to her senior living center every Friday afternoon. For several months, Williamson drilled me on spelling concepts and made me read everything. The following year in seventh grade, I again found myself on stage next to Tommy Maddox as a spelling bee finalist, but this time it was I who took home the trophy and advanced to the state competition. My failure was an opportunity for a mentor to step in and develop my potential.    

There’s not enough space here to relate anecdotes of countless community members who encouraged me and mentored me. Hearing their words of admonishment and confidence buoyed my efforts for years when I was away working to maintain my college scholarship. Knowing I had a community of folks back in Petersburg who believed in me (some who didn’t look like me!) gave me great hope when I encountered difficult college and career challenges.

Today, I have the good fortune to work for Starfish Initiative. We prepare, inspire and encourage academically promising, low-income teens to college and career success. We match every teen with a college-educated mentor. Ninety-eight percent of our scholars enroll in college. While there are indeed gaps in educational opportunities in wealthy vs. lower income zip codes, there is no substitute for a community of mentors ready to speak hope and to pour into young people. Mentors can provide extracurricular experiences and character building opportunities to practice intra- and interpersonal skills. The National Mentoring Partnership reports that youth who are mentored are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college, 78 percent more likely to volunteer regularly and 130 percent more likely to hold leadership positions. 

We can all do our part like Mrs. Bessie Williamson and help unlock the potential in the teens in our neighborhoods. Become a mentor!

Gisele Garraway is president and CEO of Starfish Initiative.