Sometimes, when college students hang out with elementary and middle school students, transformative experiences happen. That’s how Taysha James, a senior sociology major from Maple Hill, North Carolina and Jonathan Buechner, a junior European studies and political science major from Greensboro, described their time spent with students through the SMART Mentoring program.
“I got involved with SMART because I realized that young African-American ladies where I’m from don’t have a lot of role models to look up to,” James said. “I wanted to help someone who might not think that they could make it to college understand that they actually can do it.”
SMART Mentoring, a program offered by the Carolina Center for Public Service in partnership with Volunteers for Youth, engages UNC undergraduate students and local middle-school students in mentoring relationships. The program targets students from low-income communities and focuses on issues of race, class and gender. Designed for highly motivated students who are committed to making a positive difference in the lives of youth, SMART mentors enroll in a fall three-credit hour course and a spring one-credit hour course offered in the Department of Sociology.
Buechner, who had mentors throughout high school and at UNC, said SMART helped him think about social inequality and the importance of investing in the younger generation. “SMART challenged me to go outside of my comfort zone and do something I never have done before. I hope I was a positive academic role model for Sol,” Buechner said. “His mom wanted someone to help him transition from elementary to middle school as well as to get him thinking about his future. I gave him tours of campus, had meals in the dining halls with my friends, did homework in the Union, and went to the Ackland Art Museum and various sporting events. I wanted him to get a ‘taste’ of college life and imagine himself here and see UNC (and college more broadly) as an attainable goal.”
Unique in its approach, SMART mentors are immersed in a two-semester program that explores issues of race, class and gender, particularly as they apply to youth.
“I was a chemistry major,” James said. “However once I got involved with SMART and took the sociology course Race, Class and Gender, I realized that there were other ways to help people. The courses showed me that a lot of people would strive to do better if they knew what opportunities would help them. This class, along with the sociology course Health and Society, sparked my interest in public health.”
Now a sociology major, James said the most important thing she learned as a SMART mentor is that by spending time with a young person, showing them that you care and exposing them to activities and ideas they may not be familiar with, can impact the way they view education and a future career.
Buechner added “I found SMART to be a unique program and a great way to get an in-depth service experience.
“I also met an outstanding cohort of classmates whose diverse backgrounds and perspectives enhanced my critical thinking skills. The program brought to light the value of mentors in helping young people develop into mature citizens of the world.”
Susan Worley, director of Volunteers for Youth said SMART mentors benefit the local community in many ways. “It’s hard to imagine, but there are lots of kids who have lived their whole lives in Chapel Hill and never been on the UNC campus. Having a chance to develop friendships with college students, do homework with their mentors in their dorm rooms, cheer on the Heels together at the Dean Dome, or share a treat at Yopo opens these kids’ eyes to a world of possibilities they may never have imagined.”
James, one of 18 UNC students who served as SMART mentors during the 2015-2016 academic year, said she felt the time she dedicated to her mentee was time well spent, benefitting them both in ways she did not expect.
“I believe I had a positive impact on Starrie,” James said. “Her mother shared with me that since being involved with SMART, Starrie doesn’t mind reading for homework, which she hated doing. She also has a more positive outlook on education.”
Mentoring through SMART also impacted the mentors.
“Being a part of SMART reaffirmed my interest in seeking a career in public service, “Buechner said. “By engaging in experiential learning outside of the classroom…I learned more about the structural barriers that low-income and minority communities face. I gained a first-hand perspective about what discrimination, racism and income inequality look like rather than just learning the statistics from a textbook.
“This experience also reaffirmed my passion for interacting with people of various backgrounds and learning their stories. I hope to pursue a career in which I can positively impact the lives of others and promote social change.”
With another academic year about to start, James will continue her involvement with SMART, assuming a leadership role as the program’s co-chair, planning and organizing SMART activities, and overseeing all mentor/mentee events. She also said she plans to stay connected to Starrie. “I look forward to exploring new adventures and places with Starrie this year and I hope to become even closer with her and her family.”