Guest Blog: Alex Beene is a college mentor for the REDI program in Chester, McNairy and Hardin counties in West Tennessee. In addition to his work with the mentor corps, he also teaches courses in College Skills and ACT Prep for the University of Tennessee at Martin. Alex is a graduate of the University of Mississippi, where he received both bachelors and masters degrees in Journalism & Mass Communications.
Just days before the senior class at one of my high school's was scheduled to walk across stage to receive their diplomas, I got a call from the school’s guidance counselor.
“Alex, we’ve got an issue with a student who came into my office this morning,” she said quietly. “She wants to change the status on her FAFSA.”
“OK,” I quickly responded. “What’s the problem with it?”
“Well, she wants to be listed as homeless. In fact,” as the gentle tone began to be replaced with agitation, “she’s been homeless since winter. She found a place to stay with a friend, but there were some nights at the beginning where she had to sleep in her car. In February! Can you imagine, with how cold it was? I just can’t believe it. And academically, she’s a great student.”
As the counselor’s words began to run through my mind, the sting of sadness pierced through me. Some of that emotion was obviously triggered by what I was hearing at the time, but the larger pain came from the fact it wasn’t the first time I had heard this type of story.
If you gather together the mentors in REDI, our economic development organization that assists students in eleven different West Tennessee counties, you’ll hear numerous stories like the one I was told above.
There’s normally a stigma placed on teens like this, too: college “isn’t their thing.” They don’t have the resources – academically or financially – to take their education to the next level.
What you come to understand as a mentor in our public schools is the stigma, in large part, is unjustified. Many of the students have the skills and a passion to succeed, but they don’t have the right tools or information at their disposal. When you add in an often chaotic life at home, you’re left with a real uphill struggle to make the leap to a university setting.
We have a phenomenal group of educators and counselors throughout the state who tell students about college applications and FAFSA forms. However, with constantly expanding class sizes, it’s impossible for most institutions to offer a large amount of one-on-one time with those needing a great amount of assistance preparing for post-high school life.
That’s where a mentor corps comes in. Speaking as a mentor for REDI, I’ve been amazed by the level of success our corps has enjoyed in our local schools and community colleges. We hear from a wide array of people on a daily basis – from teachers to counselors to parents – had it not been for the aid we provided, their student wouldn’t have been able to plan their future effectively.
Those words take some earning, though, and we’ve learned it is a long, winding road to finding the best ways of reaching students who are economically disadvantaged. You quickly discover large assemblies are great for getting out bulk information at once, but they do little to gain the attention of individual students needing the most help.
Our corps has found a solution to this dilemma: meeting students virtually any time, anywhere. Over the course of the last two semesters, I’ve met students everywhere from their personal homes, to McDonald’s, to the parking lot of an abandoned grocery store. No, it’s not always convenient for me, but it is convenient for them.
And that’s what truly matters. It’s that convenience and generosity most of these students are not used to seeing at home that really helps them to trust you and understand you’re there to help.
It’s through that trust you really begin to get a sense of what the genuine desires are of the student with which you’re working. Unlocking their true goals is an immense benefit, as it can provide you with the knowledge of what schools to suggest and study areas they may want to explore.
Furthermore, all of that additional time gives scope to their financial situation at home. Are the options they’re pursuing what’s best for them? Can Pell grants and the HOPE Scholarship provide them with enough monetary stability for their college career or should they look into more scholarships to help cover the difference?
Of course, these personal encounters just scratch the surface of what a mentor corps is capable of accomplishing. As a collective body, we’ve presented college summits, scholarship bootcamps and various other activities to hundreds of high school seniors, all strong successes.
But it’s that time spent mentor-to-student that really makes all the difference. And the results show: in the first few years since REDI’s launch, our primarily rural counties are noticing a culture shift. Community colleges are seeing increasing enrollments, technology centers are having programs fill up months ahead of time and, most importantly, our communities know what REDI is. We don’t have to track down students so much anymore; they’re brought to us.
The girl I mentioned earlier? She’s just a few weeks away from starting her first semester at a community college. Her first year is paid for through federal, state and local financial aid. Best of all, she has a roof over her head. While she still faces challenges, she’s now on the right track. And while many people assisted her in her journey, I’m just happy as a college mentor I was able to play a small role in her being where she’s at today.