Trinity students mentor Hartford fifth graders

By Lori Ferguson

diversity1Fifth grade is a vulnerable time in any child’s life — the preteen years are just around the corner, and the transition from elementary school to middle school is imminent. When you’re also struggling with issues of culture, identity, and race, the difficulties are compounded. Maybe you’re a Spanish speaker in an English-speaking institution, frustrated in your attempts to comprehend basic classroom instructions. Perhaps you’re from a family that celebrates its heritage, yet you feel alienated because your cultural identity isn’t recognized by your teachers or classmates, or worse, is seen as deficient. Many children in Hartford’s public schools face these challenges and more, says Trinity Associate Professor of Educational Studies Andrea Dyrness.

A specialist in the anthropology of education, Dyrness has been working in the public schools for more than 10 years and has witnessed the children’s struggles firsthand. Now, with the help of a dedicated group of Trinity undergraduates, she’s changing the dynamic. “I wanted to create a program that would open a space for conversation as well as bridge the gap between Trinity’s campus and the local community,” says Dyrness. With the Moylan Community Mentoring Program completing its third semester, she is well on her way.

Dyrness has been sending Trinity students into Hartford classrooms for years through the educational studies introductory course “Analyzing Schools” and her upper-level course “Latinos in Education: Local Realities, Transnational Perspectives.” And while these encounters were informative, Dyrness also realized that students didn’t have sufficient opportunity to explore the issues they encountered or to speak in-depth with the children about their challenges or concerns. So she conceived a community mentoring program, with the goal of creating a safe space for cultural expression and conversations about cultural identity. “Cultural identity is essential to who we are,” Dyrness explains. “It doesn’t usually get talked about in schools, yet research shows that students who have strong cultural identities and can connect what they learn in school to their communities and their cultural histories do better academically.”

Dyrness enlisted the help of Jessie Wanzer ’08, one of her former students and a current fifth-grade teacher at Hartford’s Expeditionary Learning Academy at Moylan School (ELAMS) — a neighborhood public school whose population is 77 percent Latino — to identify young participants and to help organize the program. Wanzer was delighted to contribute. “It’s important to me to maintain a connection with Trinity, which gave me so much,” he says, “and I’m always looking for ways to support my students through initiatives with the College.”

Dyrness also set out to assemble a team of undergraduate mentors to whom the children could relate, whether because they looked like them, spoke the same language, or had experienced similar challenges in their own childhood. She recruited participants from across disciplines, spreading the word at various student meetings around campus.

Mentors and Posse Scholars Michael Bankston ’18 and Chris Lora ’17, top center, with students from Hartford’s Expeditionary Learning Academy at Moylan School at a Monday afternoon meeting in February in Mather Hall’s Alumni Lounge

Mentors and Posse Scholars Michael Bankston ’18 and Chris Lora ’17, top center, with students from Hartford’s Expeditionary Learning Academy at Moylan School at a Monday afternoon meeting in February in Mather Hall’s Alumni Lounge

In January 2015, the program launched with 10 Trinity undergraduates and approximately 20 fifth graders from four Moylan classes. The current mentors are primarily Latino and come from a variety of backgrounds, including Mexican-American, Dominican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, Mexican-Palestinian, and African American. Almost all are bilingual as well as first-generation college students. “These students can really focus on the issues of language, identity, and culture that the children are confronting because they’ve experienced many of the same challenges,” says Dyrness. Mentor Nicole Katav ’17, a Posse Scholar, notes, “As mentors, we become role models to our kids because not too long ago we were just like them.”

Each mentor is matched with two, sometimes three, mentees. They serve as role models, demonstrating to the children that they can take pride in who they are and where they come from and also strive to achieve more, including a college education. Mentors help out in Moylan classrooms two hours per week, and every Monday afternoon from 4:00 to 5:00, the fifth graders travel to the Alumni Lounge in Trinity’s Mather Hall for a group activity focused on a topic such as family, neighborhood, or cultural identity. Past topics have included a presentation on the history of Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood and another on Puerto Rican migration to Connecticut. “We use the Monday meetings to bridge gaps in the school curriculum and design activities that speak to students’ lives,” says Dyrness.

The program is not explicitly academic, though academic benefits are a common by-product of the experience, says Dyrness. Instead, the aim is to build a sense of community between the neighborhood youth and students at Trinity, while at the same time promoting a sense of belonging to both the College and the neighborhood. “Our model is collective, not individual. We want to provide a forum for the children to investigate issues that will help them connect with their community and their educational experience.”

Mentor Mateo Zabala ’18 with Moylan students

Mentor Mateo Zabala ’18 with Moylan students

Those issues are often challenging. Mentors spend a lot of time talking with the kids about stereotypes, Dyrness says, but they also help them process concerns such as gun violence, police brutality, and incarcerated family members. “We want to make sure that we create a safe space for the kids to express themselves,” says mentor and educational studies major Veronica Armendariz ’16, a Posse Scholar. “We try to teach the children to respect one another’s opinions and question the statements, not the person. I’ve seen so much change in my mentees in the past semester,” Armendariz continues. “They’ve become more aware of who they are, they speak up more in class, they’re even starting discussions within their own families about their cultural identities.”

The experience has changed Armendariz, a Mexican-American, as well. “I’ve shared my mentoring experiences with my own family, and it’s changed our interactions — it’s really changed everything I do. I want to be a teacher, and this experience has helped me become more aware of the difficult situations I might encounter. I’m more mindful of the challenges my students face and more appreciative of the many factors that may influence a situation. I’ve also learned to listen, instead of just asking a lot of questions.”

Mentor and mechanical engineering student Brayan Duarte ’18, a Posse Scholar, has found his involvement in the program similarly gratifying. A native of Colombia who was raised in New York, Duarte says that working with the Moylan students has allowed him to pay it forward. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for my mentor, so I wanted to be there for someone else. It’s rewarding to see the kids grow and change — I’ve had mentees whose attitudes have moved from ‘I don’t care,’ to ‘School’s not so bad,’ to ‘Maybe I can go to college, too!’ ”

Mentor Ji Yun Lee ’17, right, with a Moylan student

Mentor Ji Yun Lee ’17, right, with a Moylan student

“The relationships that the mentors are building with their mentees are exceeding our wildest expectations,” observes Dyrness, “and we have powerful anecdotal evidence that the sense of community between the neighborhood and Trinity is building.”

Moylan teacher Wanzer concurs. “The mentors are such positive role models. The kids look forward to their arrival each week and love to talk about what they do together on campus. I’ve seen incredible improvements in my students in a very short time — their language skills have improved, their maturity levels have increased, and their confidence has grown.” Wanzer says the program helps him in the classroom, too. “The mentors share conversations that they’ve had with their mentees, and this feedback helps me to serve my students better. I want to do everything I can to ensure that the program continues to thrive.”

The program has also strengthened mentors’ sense of belonging on campus. “…Through the students, other mentors, and the mentorship as a whole, I have grown as a person of color by being even more proud of who I am,” observes mentor Nancy Garcia ’18, a Posse Scholar. “This campus is often very intimidating in that sense, and being around these kids, inspiring them to love themselves, also helped me love myself.”

Photos: John Marinelli