'"I'm here for Nhi, my mentee, and any other student who feels that they want to share their story or talk to or get advice from someone who looks a little like them." – Elizabeth Román '03
Editor's Note: This story appears in the Spring 2021 issue of HCC's Alumni Connection magazine.
By JANICE BEETLE
As a junior at Chicopee Comprehensive High School, Zasha Valentin started a job working at McDonald's. The following year, her mother urged her to quit - not the job, but school.
It was more important, she was told, that Zasha help supplement her family's income. High school was expendable, and college not remotely on her radar. The message was drilled into her head, she recently recalled: "Work, work, work."
Years later, Valentin, now 25, is a first-year student at HCC and was recruited to be part of a new mentorship program focused on students of color, the HCC Champions Mentorship Network, affectionately called "Chats with Champions."
The program pairs first-semester students like Valentin with alumni of color who share their backgrounds, academic interests and career ambitions - those who know, through their own, often bumpy experiences, how to succeed in college and beyond.
"I had to figure a lot out myself," says Armanis Fuentes '19, one of the program's alumni mentors, who grew up in Holyoke.
Fuentes' parents never finished high school, and he too was pushed into the world of work. After holding various minimum-wage, entry-level positions over several years, he enrolled at HCC. Without family guidance, though, he had to find his own way through often-confusing college processes, such as applying for financial aid and choosing classes.
"It definitely was trying," he says.
Fuentes graduated from HCC in 2019 with high honors and now holds two separate fellowships through Williams College, where he is majoring in history and art. He is eager to pass along what he has learned.
"To be able to impart knowledge is a better use for it than keeping it in my head," he says.
After months of planning, the Mentorship Network got off the ground last fall with 21 students matched with 16 alumni mentors, thanks in part to a $100,000 grant the college received from the Lumina Foundation, a national nonprofit that seeks to dismantle systemic barriers to success for Black and Latinx college students and help them earn their degrees.
The creation of the Champions Mentorship Network ties directly into one of HCC's principal strategic goals: increasing retention and success rates of students of color. It also aligns with the state Dept. of Higher Education's top priority of education equity.
"We're helping to foster connections and open paths for our students of color to empower their academic success and help them navigate their education and life goals," said Julie Phillips, HCC's coordinator of Alumni Affairs and one of the mentorship program's co-creators. "The whole point is for these students to see alumni who look like them who are out around the country, working. Because the mentors have walked this path, they have a certain empathy for the mentees that is unique and special, and it fuels their passion to serve."
The Champions Mentorship Network builds on a series of alumni panel discussions started in the spring of 2020 called "Chats with Champions." Each of two panels focused on a different academic area - business and social sciences - and featured alumni working in those fields. (A third alumni event on STEM was canceled after the campus was closed due to COVID-19.)
As part of the new program, Chats with Champions has moved from the HCC Campus Center, where the first sessions were held, to an online platform. During the fall, as part of the new network, virtual group chats were held on topics with more of a focus on mentorship: community leadership; aha moments; and transferring to a four-year college or university.
Phillips administers the program along with HCC alumna Myriam Quiñones '95, coordinator of MAS, HCC's Multicultural Academic Services program, and Lauren LeClair, coordinator of Orientation and New Student Programs. They say the Champions Mentorship Network is unique in higher education circles, as it specifically pairs incoming students of color with alumni of color in their field of interest, and the program is already reaping benefits for both students and mentors.
Phillips explains that the network is based on three pillars: one-on one conversations between student and mentor; the virtual group chats with panels of mentors who offer dynamic conversations on specific topics; and workshops developed by Quiñones and LeClair that help students with tasks such as registering for classes, setting goals and securing financial aid.
Lumina grant funds were used to buy 21 new Chromebooks for the HCC library that are dedicated for students in the Mentorship Network. (Participants also receive a small stipend: $400 for students and $100 for alumni.) Students are required to set college or career-oriented goals and monitor their progress weekly. Their mentors help hold them accountable.
The network works, the program coordinators say, because students have an advocate in their field of interest with whom they develop a personal relationship as well as a wider network of experienced alumni they can call upon in the future for help.
"This was a great opportunity for me to talk about my journey as a student of color and now as a professional working in the field that I chose," said Elizabeth Román '03, a bilingual reporter for the Springfield Republican newspaper and editor of its sister publication, El Pueblo Latino. "I'm here for Nhi" – her student mentee – "and any other student who feels that they want to share their story or talk to or get advice from someone who looks a little like them."
Like Román, the alumni "champions" are developing a sense of leadership, and enjoy talking about their experiences at HCC as well as their jobs and how they got them.
"Mentors are very invested in helping their mentees, going out of their way to assist them-texting when the student needs help with homework, or offering kudos on a completed task," Quiñones says. "We asked mentors to give one hour a month. They're giving many hours. They are invested so much they want to make sure mentees have access to them."
After dropping out of high school, Valentin earned her high school equivalency. She is now a registered behavioral technician and works full time at Papermill Elementary School in Westfield, implementing behavior modification plans for students with special needs. Along the way, she developed a passion for the work and wanted to learn more.
At HCC, she is majoring in elementary education and paired with mentor Eilianie Alvelo '13, of Westfield. After graduating from HCC with her associate degree in liberal arts, Alvelo transferred to Westfield State University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in applied behavioral science.
Alvelo, who is bilingual, is now a board-certified behavior analyst at the May Institute and Behavioral Concepts, where she provides behavior analytic services to children with autism while supporting Spanish-speaking families.
"I decided to become a mentor because, when I was at HCC, my mentors were key ingredients to my ability to finish my two-year degree, transfer to a four-year college and be successful there," Alvelo said. "I think life in general is easier when you can help identify the steps you need to take to get where you want to be."
Through the fall semester and into the new year, Alvelo has offered many assists to Valentin, one of her two mentees. For instance, she helped Valentin craft a professional-looking resume and cover letter. Valentin plans to transfer to a four-year school after completing her education at HCC. Her goal is to earn a master's degree and work in applied behavior analysis, like Alvelo.
Having a mentor in her field of interest is helping Valentin enhance her HCC education and is better preparing her for a real career, she says. Alvelo, for her part, says she enjoys listening to her mentees' hopes and dreams and working with them to figure out ways to minimize or eliminate any obstacles that could interfere with their ability to reach their goals.
"We identify very specific steps they can take," Alvelo says. "I appreciate being able to be there for them when they text me, sharing that they feel overwhelmed by finals, work, or life in general. I know that sometimes we just need someone to say, 'You got this! Just keep swimming!' and so I am happy to be that person for them."
Fuentes, 23, was paired with HCC student Johnny Garcia Jr., who grew up in Chicopee under similar circumstances to his in a family that did not have any experience with college. Garcia says taking part in the network has pushed him outside his comfort zone, as he hoped it would. He's grateful to have a mentor who understands his experience.
"I've met amazing people who encourage me and are very kind and supportive," he says. "They all offer me support that I do not have in my household. They offer me their advice. These are things I do not normally have in my everyday life."
Garcia is studying criminal justice and biology and plans to join the military after graduating from HCC to help pay for the remainder of his education. He says Fuentes has been instrumental in helping him figure out which branch of the military would suit him best.
"He has helped me make decisions that were really hard," says Garcia. "He encouraged me to ask questions and do my research."
Fuentes said he finds excitement in his role as mentor. "It's a cool opportunity to reach students who are in the position I was just in a year or two ago," he says.
The pilot phase of the program concluded in January. A less intensive, more informal version is continuing through spring. Phillips notes that all 21 student-mentees successfully completed their program goals and all of them returned to HCC for the spring 2021 semester.
Based on the program's success, the HCC Foundation has committed funds to allow the full version of the Champions Mentorship Network to continue in the fall.
"We want to continue with the current students and recruit a new cohort of incoming students," Quiñones says. "We would like have at least 30 mentees."
After one semester, the future of the network seems as bright as those it serves. They are certainly not likely to run out of willing alumni. The program has "helped me tons toward achieving my goals," says Valentin. "Who knows? Maybe when I graduate, I can join the program as a mentor."
PHOTO (Above) Left to right: Nathalie Vicencio '02, Eilianie Alvelo '13, and Shawn Robinson '05 take part in a "Chats With Champions" alumni panel discussion moderated by Prof. T. Ross, far right, chair of the HCC Sociology department before the pandemic in spring 2020. The in-person alumni discussions were the inspiration for HCC's new Champions Mentorship Network.