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Coalition to Help Seniors Make Post-Secondary Plans

After a pilot project based on the Hartford Student Internship Program which ran last winter and spring, the ALL IN! Coalition plans to launch another effort to support members of the Class of 2022 this January. The program will again focus on post-secondary planning and placement for Hartford Public School seniors without plans for their lives after graduation.

While students were still learning remotely in the first half of 2021, the Coalition worked with the Hartford Public Schools staff to help many who were disengaged get onto a career pathway, thanks to financial support from local foundations. With tenacity, creativity and persistence to reach students who were not engaged in post-secondary planning, nonprofit partners gave support to 92 students who otherwise may not have received help planning for and enrolling in post-secondary pathways.

“Very few cities in America put forth an effort during COVID-19 to go out and engage the students who were not as involved in school and who didn’t have a post-secondary plan,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford and a leader in the coalition. “As a result, there were even students supported late in spring who ended up enrolling in a 4-year college.”

The pilot year of last-minute, spring intervention gave us some definite lessons. First, we asked too much of seniors, many of whom were busy working and helping with family during the pandemic, while also trying to learn remotely, he says. Getting them to complete workshops along with post-secondary planning and doing an internship was too much to expect.

This coming semester, we will try to reach students face-to-face at their schools. And we will keep the programming simple and focused on helping them with post-secondary planning. “They need support that meets them where they are,” he says. We also learned that we need to stick with students through and past the summer to ensure they reach their desired post-secondary placement – whether that be college, training or high-quality job.

Providers who continued working with seniors throughout the summer learned that engaging seniors during the spring and summer after graduation is particularly challenging, since seniors were burned out, especially last year with the pandemic raging. In the second year of this effort, the program will focus less on life-skills workshops and internships, since many students are already working. Instead, staff will work with them to further gauge their skills and interests, expose them to a multitude of post-secondary options that put them on a path toward earning a livable wage, and stay with them until placement.

“We hope to serve at least 100 students from the city’s neediest high schools by working with guidance counselors and community-based organizations with existing relationships with local high schools,” Holzer says. Funding to pay the local nonprofits’ staff to meet with and work with students will come from Hartford-based foundations with a long-standing commitment to the city. 

Mentee Becomes Mentor

Reanna O’Bryan began her first semester at Capital Community College in the fall of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to be held virtually. She was assigned a peer mentor, who helped her connect with the college, despite the circumstances.

Her mentor asked her about how she felt taking her classes online and suggested time management skills to counteract procrastination, she says. Even though she had started taking college classes during her junior and senior years of high school, she still found the pressure of full-time college stressful, she says. She’d have multiple tabs on her screen open at once and be working on three assignments simultaneously.

Her mentor told her “to relax, take breaks and breathe,” she says. So, after her first year of college, the East Hartford resident applied for a job as a peer mentor with Achieve Hartford. “I see how helpful it was for me specifically just having someone to talk to,” she says. O’Bryan, who just turned 20, felt she could offer to other students the kind of support and encouragement, as well as practical advice, that had helped her.

She connected her mentees to tutoring offered through the academic services department. First-year students are often unaware of all the departments set up to help them, so she alerted them to services and sent reminders. She also offered to be a study buddy to one of her mentees whose grades were not where she wanted them to be. She set it up so they’d be on video-chat together, each doing their own homework.

“If I see someone else doing work, I want to be productive,” O’Bryan says. She said to her mentee, “ ‘I know college can be overwhelming. You can be honest with me. I’m also overwhelmed with college. Let’s help each other.’ ”

Like her, all of her mentees work while going to college and they talked about how daunted and intimidated they felt. She joined with other mentors to schedule group activities where the first-semester students could share, help each other and see that they’re not alone.

While she enjoyed the work, she says, she’ll earn her associate’s degree in January and will not continue mentoring at CCC. In the spring, she is continuing her education at Goodwin University to work on a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Mentors Moving On & Up

This December, we said goodbye to four mentors who can no longer work for Achieve Hartford because they’ll be graduating from their community college, taking on an internship or a full-time job. We hate to lose them but we celebrate their progress toward their career goals.

Mentor Julie Callejas, of East Hartford, has transferred to Charter Oak State College to earn her bachelor’s in organizational leadership and, eventually, a master’s. She is also becoming the interim executive director of End Hunger Connecticut, where she served on the board and stepped in to help out during a transitional period. Callejas already had an associate degree in social work and ran two businesses when she began working on a second degree at Manchester Community College to become a disability specialist.

We rarely have mentors as experienced as Julie, but with so many shared experiences with the freshmen she supported, she was always able to relate and add value. As a first-generation immigrant herself, she knew how hard it was to navigate the United States’ college system, especially financial aid, she says.

She tried to teach her mentees that in college, the teachers and staff won’t help them unless asked. “With the mentoring program, you’re teaching them, ‘If you’re struggling in this area, this is how you’re going to advocate for yourself and get what you need.’ ”

Another mentor, Stefan Hall, of Windsor, will be doing an internship at the accounting firm Fiondella, Milone & LaSaracina in Glastonbury while also finishing his final semester at MCC.  After graduating in May with an associate degree in accounting and business administration, he plans to transfer next fall to UConn as a junior in the accounting program.

He’s been mentoring students for Achieve Hartford since June of 2020 and has found the job both challenging and rewarding. “Some students will probably think a mentor is just a spammer or scammer or an automated messaging system no matter how much we mix it up and change how we approach them.” This made the most difficult part of the job breaking through their suspicion and getting them to connect, he says.

The most rewarding part, was being able to help students. “I know firsthand how navigating college can be a bit of a maze at first, even without the coursework that comes with it,” he says. “It is a great feeling to help and to see students successfully navigate college, access the myriad of opportunities and supports it offers and then to see them not only do well, but be excited to continue their journey into the next semester and beyond.”

Mentor Isis Murillo Bravo, whose three jobs totaled full-time work while attending MCC, will be working 40 hours a week in two jobs instead. She’ll be working for MCC and 30 hours a week working with students for GEAR UP CT at East Hartford High School, in a job that’s similar to her role as a mentor. The East Hartford resident, who moved here from Peru when she was 13, is scheduled to earn her associate degree this spring and is awaiting responses to her college transfer applications before deciding where to complete her bachelor’s degree. We’re also losing Reanna O’Bryan, who graduates from Capital Community College in January and has transferred to Goodwin University to continue her nursing education. (See Mentee Becomes Mentor)

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