Category: News
Mentor Guides, Reassures New Students

In her three years as a student at Manchester Community College, Isis Murillo Bravo has requested more financial aid, struggled with several classes and dropped four, disliked a professor and questioned her competence for college-level work. She’s also worked full time, lived in her own apartment and worried about how she’d pay for college.

Bravo mentors several students like her – most first-generation, low-income students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants unfamiliar with the American college system. She moved to East Hartford from Peru at 13 to live with her father. His refusal to provide the tax return information necessary for Bravo to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prevented her from attending college right after high school. Instead, she worked during a gap year and eventually convinced her stepmother to give her the tax return data she needed to complete the FAFSA.

When mentoring prospective students last summer and first-year students this fall, she drew from her own challenges.

“A lot of them are going through this thinking they’re the only ones struggling,” Bravo says. “I don’t want these students to think they’re not college material. It all comes down to the resources they had in hand. I’ll send emails saying, ‘We’re all struggling. I still struggle. It’s not meant to be easy.’”

Bravo works as a mentor in Achieve Hartford’s Summer Transition and College Persistence programs, which provide students from Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Vernon and Windsor mentoring support in the summer before college and their fall and spring semesters of their first year. She’s guided them to adjust to college expectations, where their professors won’t get after them if they miss class or an assignment. At the same time, she’s told them: If they need help from their professor or academic support services, all they have to do is ask. She’s told them about college resources, including staff who help students apply for food assistance benefits and scholarships.

One of her mentees, who had moved from El Salvador three years earlier, lacked the English language fluency to do well in the five courses in which he had enrolled. Bravo took him to the international student office and attended the appointment with him, acting as morale support and a translator. He learned he could enroll in English as a Second Language classes for which he was eligible for financial aid. He dropped his college classes and, with help from the international student office, the college waived the $50 fee per class. Once he reaches English 101 proficiency, she says, he plans to re-enroll.

Several of her mentees are working full- or part-time and caring for family while attending college with little to no family support. When she asked them at a recent mentee meeting to write down on a note card something they wanted to brag about, she says, “everyone had a really hard time acknowledging their successes. We have a couple of students who are bilingual. They didn’t see that as a strength. It was very eye-opening to have these conversations.”

She pointed out that just still being in school was something to be proud of, that some were artistic, bilingual or working. She encouraged them to take the time to be proud of themselves for being in college, reminding them some of their peers had already dropped out.

One mentee, a Latinx man, texted her afterward to say that because of his upbringing, it’s difficult for him to share his feelings and struggles in front of others. “I told him I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, but I see my dad not expressing his feelings and that led us to having a negative relationship,” Bravo says. “I try to show him he’s doing the right thing by trying to be more open about his mental health.”


First-Year Student Settles In at MCC

Windsor resident Lisa Chin did not see herself as a future college student a few years ago, but her high school guidance counselor suggested she start small at a community college. She had struggled in high school with undiagnosed ADHD, so she began this fall by taking just two required courses – English and math. She credits her peer mentor with giving her the guidance, practical skills and support she needed to start and become engaged with college.

Before enrolling at Manchester Community College, Chin had never finished an essay, she says. This semester, she has surprised herself by writing an essay a month. Her Achieve Hartford mentor, Isis Murillo Bravo, “gives me a lot of tips on how to start that kind of stuff.” Her mentor has taught her how to break the tasks up into manageable chunks from the time she receives the assignment and “not waiting until the last minute. In the past, I had to work against my
brain. My ADHD made me feel like I had to work twice as hard at something.”

Her mentor answered her questions and saw where she struggled. Bravo sat down with Chin and helped her create a time-management schedule for when to do homework for each class, she says. Her mentor taught her to review her completed essays for what worked and what didn’t and coached her on effective proofreading before handing essays in, Chin says.

Chin dropped out of high school and, after deciding a life in retail wasn’t for her, returned a few months later. At college, she says, she initially struggled with imposter syndrome. That changed when she began attending biweekly ‘tea time’ meetings with her mentor and other mentees. Through our Summer Transition and College Persistence programs in partnership with Capital and Manchester Community Colleges, we hire, train and supervise college students to work as peer mentors to first-year, mostly first-generation students. We serve graduates of public schools in Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Vernon and Windsor; these programs began as ALL IN! Coalition Action Team pilot programs with Hartford students.

“Having that extra support and someone you can go to to ask questions so you don’t feel like you’re alone is really helpful. When you go to college, you’re alone. You don’t feel comfortable asking people for help. The tea time is really helpful. You get to meet people; you get out of your comfort zone,” she says. “I wish everybody had a mentor like Isis.”

With Bravo’s encouragement, she has been attending a campus National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter meetings and a roller-skating party. This has allowed her meet other first-semester students and get to know them. MCC held the New Student Orientation online as a series of sessions. “It was really refreshing to sit down and meet other students,” she says. “You get to talk to people who have the same interests as you.”

Bravo has also guided her through practical steps – helping her register for fall classes during the summer and, this fall, reminding her of the deadlines to submit the FAFSA and register for spring classes.

Having Bravo as her mentor “feels like a friend. You don’t feel like you’re talking to a mentor,” Chin says. “She’s played a really big role into me transitioning into MCC.”


This Giving Tuesday, We’re Grateful for You

In honor of Giving Tuesday, our board is matching private donations dollar-for-dollar, up to $1,000. This is the first time in four years we’re actively seeking individual contributions and we hope you’ll give what you can, no matter the amount, at https://www.achievehartford.org/.

Since its founding, Achieve Hartford has worked to serve low-income, underserved people, most of whom are people of color. The pandemic has revealed to the wider population what we knew and have been working to address for 12 years: Children growing up in low-income households have less likelihood of starting and completing college, no matter how hard working and intelligent they are.

“We believe, with the right supports and encouragement, every high school student can get on a path to reaching their potential,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director. “The students we mentor are grateful to their mentors for helping them beat the odds and start and persist in college. We’re grateful to our funders for helping make our work possible.”

In the words of our mentor, Isis Murillo Bravo, a Manchester Community College student, a big part of her job is reassuring first-generation students that their struggles and self-doubt are universal. When they tell her they can’t find the time to do their homework and are ready to drop out, “I calm them down and help them understand those feelings are valid. We all go through them. I make sure they know they’re not alone,” she says. “I tell them, because they’re learning to feel comfortable asking questions, they’re ahead of their peers.”


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