By Shatera McNair,
Class of 2022 Sociology Major, Minoring in both Education and Social and Economic Justice
At the tail end of a fully remote 2020-2021 school year, I was frantically planning for my senior year. Similar to my peers, and what seemed like the entire UNC-Chapel Hill student body, I was eager to find meaningful avenues to reconnect with others on campus and in the surrounding community despite the ongoing pandemic. I searched for campus and community service engagements that could revive my Carolina experience through a new sense of community. As a Student Programs Assistant for APPLES Service-Learning, it wasn’t difficult to find opportunities offered by the Carolina Center for Public Service (CCPS). Even so, I came across the SMART Mentoring Program’s website a week too late– unfortunately, the deadline had passed, and I remember my stomach turning in light of a lost opportunity for reconnection.
The SMART Mentoring program engages Carolina undergraduate students and local middle school students in mentoring relationships. In the hopes of exploring my new interests in teaching students, I crossed my fingers and decided to inquire about an extension. Thankfully, after talking to student leadership and CCPS staff support, I received an extension, successfully was able to interview, got accepted into the program and registered for the assigned courses during the final weeks of the school year. I was excited to mentor a young person and help them build their interests and act on their ambitions. Little did I know that I was also joining a tight-knit learning community that would change my understanding of mentorship, self-reflection and being a part of something larger than myself.
Mentors & Mentees: Growing Together
Throughout my school-year-long relationship with Ahniyah, my 10-year-old mentee, I finally found the meaningful connection that I was seeking during quarantine. Through activities such as a trip to Carowinds, trying boba tea on Franklin, painting in the Arboretum and sleepovers filled with music, laughter and late-night talks, the SMART Mentoring program provided a space that evoked everlasting memories and forged life-altering relationships.
Like other mentors in our nine-person cohort, Keeley Benfield and Suzy Brito Lagunas have found meaningful relationships with their mentees, Anderson and Lucero, as well as their families. Two years into the pandemic, mentors and families connected in person and formed new relationships following the program’s remote implementation during the 2020-2021 school year.
Keeley and Anderson bonded over their shared joy in sports and have spent hours playing soccer, basketball, going on walks and going to the skate park. Suzy enjoyed connecting with her mentee on warm, relaxing afternoons.
“I realized the simplest things–such as eating dessert with a mentee on a picnic blanket outside of campus–were truly enjoyable and we would just talk away,” says Suzy.
Overcoming Barriers and Learning Through Reflection
As mentors, we share our experiences with our mentees through Mentoring Circles that are implemented in the academic component of the SMART Mentoring program. In these circles, we receive guidance from the course instructor, Ruy Marquinez, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. SMART Mentors use the space to share about various circumstances that arise during the program and their personal reflections as we grow and support each other within the program.
As mentors, we take two courses, SOCI 444 in the Fall and SOCI 396 in the Spring, both taught by Marquinez this school year. One topic that stood out to me was learning about our social identities (race, class, gender, etc.) and lived experiences in society. This topic focused on racial achievement and opportunity gaps present across school systems in the United States.
Keeley, Suzy and I, along with the other mentors in our cohort, have expressed that we joined this program because we believe in the betterment of youth and families in Chapel Hill, as well as in the larger community. Keeley shared that she joined the program to learn more about how race, class and gender shape the youth living in the Chapel Hill community.
“I also wanted to pay it back to my former mentor who had a life-lasting impact, and as my relationship continues to grow, Anderson has helped me to become a better version of myself,” adds Keeley.
Similarly, Suzy shed light on her personal connection to the program. She says, “I want to push for diversity amid higher-level education. As a minority student, I have been given the resources to understand myself, and I wish to continue supporting other students.”
She continued: “By being a part of the SMART Mentoring program, I am helping someone to overcome class, academic and social barriers to higher education and opening doors and opportunities for others to follow their dreams.”
Connections to Last a Lifetime
I agree with Keeley, Suzy and the consensus across our cohort that the SMART Mentoring program is a way to push forward access to higher quality education, not only through the school system itself, but through community relationship-building and individual self-reflection. After two years of quarantine, the transition back to in-person programming has built momentum that positively impacts the entire community.
“One thing COVID taught us all is just how important connections with other people are,” says Susan Worley, who is the Executive Director of Volunteers for Youth: a community partner that connects Chapel Hill families to Carolina students. She adds, “Some of the relationships that have been formed through SMART have been life-changing for mentors, kids and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community as a whole. To have a job that allows me to help forge those connections brings me real joy!”
As a mentor to Ahniyah, I have witnessed this program create unique spaces for significant connections and support to form across mentors, families, Volunteers for Youth and CCPS staff. The SMART Mentoring program is truly a learning community that provides opportunities to reconnect to campus and the community in ways that are lasting and profound. Ahniyah’s parents have taken me in not only as her mentor, but as a big sister to Ahniyah, and her older sister Mahlaya, and as a member of their larger family. My final year at Carolina was more than what I ever could have asked for, and I am eternally grateful.
Apply to begin your own journey of transformation and reflection. Apply to become a SMART Mentor through the CCPS Application Portal by April 11th.