Education was always of utmost importance in my household because I would be the first in my family to attend college. My mother, the child of a Honduran and Puerto Rican immigrants, never went to college and my college attainment was a priority for her. I was always academically pressured in my childhood to make a name for myself, and I was expected to do great things. Having straight A’s, a GPA of 4.0, and good grades was a precedence in my family.
From elementary to middle school, I was considered a gifted honor’s student, but then once high school started, things hit a turning point. I had finally started my ascent (perhaps descent would be a better phrase to use in my case) into adulthood, and started questioning myself. What did I want to do? It was not what my family wanted for me. Eventually, I was pushed away by their overbearingness, and I rebelled academically. Moreover, I felt uncared for by my teachers in school. No one asked how I was doing or if I needed help. And when I started being bullied by my peers, the teachers and adults who were supposed to care for me, did not.
Around this time, the initial symptoms of my mental illnesses began to surface—with the family pressure, the bullying, and feeling uncared for, I no longer wanted to show up to my school building and sit through hours of class. My mother and my school were both unsupportive— thinking I was a ‘problem child’ instead of giving me help or support that I needed.
These days I’m in AHRC’s Advance and Earn program, studying to get my HSE, and a member of the Mayor’s Fellows at Young Invincibles. I’m referred to as a “Disconnected Youth,” teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school. I don’t like the term disconnected because I always wanted to finish my education, but felt like no one was genuinely supportive around me.
This is why mentorship in school is so important. Mentorship has the power to impact the course of students’ academic and personal life trajectories. Human connection built on trust is the glue binding students’ academic and personal lives and helps them make sense of their futures. We need mentors that are here to help because they CARE, not because they’re doing it for a paycheck. The reliable routine of mentorship allows students to build a gradual relationship with their teachers based on honesty and trust. Mentors serve as a thought partner for students on their academic journeys and empower students to become autonomous learners and agents of their own change. They express understanding of students’ aspirations and fears, supporting their success as an advocate, keeping their best interests as a priority. Imagine trying to develop self-regulation in an environment where children do not feel physically and emotionally safe? Children need an overall sense of safety in their environments and strong relationships with adults and peers to set the stage for any type of learning expected by the New York City Department of Education.
Relationships with students should include alignment with home life, achieved through regular communication and periodic mentor-student meetings with parents/guardians. To implement this would be through one-on-one mentoring, with mentors assigned their personalized group of students based on life experiences/qualifications. An essential component of one-to-one mentoring sessions are weekly self-reflections, which can allow students to build awareness of setting and following through on appropriate academic and social goals. Students consistently practicing individual goal-setting and reflection are better able to accurately recognize and assess their strengths, then act on areas for self-improvement. Going hand-in-hand with identifying strengths, students should also explore personal interests–through clubs, community programs or projects–with encouragement from their mentors to develop their passions. As for academics, mentors should meet with students to evaluate their progress; set short and long-term goals; develop an action plan; and teach time-management, planning strategies. Having intentional, weekly interactions provides students with a universal set of skills– goal setting, adaptability and reflection– all necessary to succeed in college, career and life. Additionally, mentors can create a safe, judgement-free space for students to discuss anything in their personal or academic lives. Personalized learning begins by meeting students where they are at. I know I would’ve been better off with a mentor who welcomed me with open arms and ears.
Leilanie Guerrero is a member of Young Invincibles’ New York 2021 Mayor’s Fellowship in Policy and Advocacy program.