When I first met Nehemiah, I could tell he was a character. Out of his entire first grade class, he was the biggest, which meant that picking fights was a norm. He was unmotivated and disengaged from his schoolwork and loved to goof off with his friends during class.
Although these traits seemed to negatively define him, I took an interest in him. I started to meet with him individually to keep him engaged through his math and literacy schoolwork. I talked with him about using his words when he was upset, not his fists. After countless interactions that helped coach Nehemiah to make positive choices, I witnessed little changes. I saw him understand the negative consequences of fighting. I saw him get excited about learning. I saw him help his classmates and be a better friend. He definitely wasn’t perfect, as change happens over a long period of time. But looking from the beginning to the end of the year, Nehemiah made a significant amount of growth because of the investment others made in him.
My mentoring experience was as transformational for me as it was for Nehemiah. It allowed me to understand the importance of mentoring and what a relationship can do for the academic and personal life of a child. For children like Nehemiah, the need for a mentor is tremendous. Five-hundred-thousand students in the United States drop out of school each year and are led down a path in which negative consequences can severely impact their future. The most horrifying part of this is that we already know who these students are and we can identify them as early as sixth grade through their attendance, behavior, and course performance.
There are many experienced professionals who are working to find solutions to the educational crisis our nation is facing but it seems that a simple answer is right in front of our eyes. Youth who have a one-on-one relationship can drastically change the state of our education system and our country. Studies show that students who meet regularly with their mentor are 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip school, have increased student engagement, have improved attitudes about completing school work and are 46 percent less likely to try drugs and alcohol. Not only are their experiences at school more positive, but their personal lives as well. Mentees report that they have improved self-esteem, created more positive relationships with family members and built parental trust.
There are 18 million young Americans who need a mentor, but only about 3 million have one. In Virginia, there are more than 150,000 youth that could benefit from a mentoring relationship. Being a mentor is a critical, cost-effective and time-efficient solution to making sure students are in school and on track to graduate.
Fortunately, VCU sees the importance of this need. Through organizations like VCU AmeriCorps, The Carver Promise and others, VCU offers a wide variety of opportunities for students and community members to be involved. By visiting the Virginia Mentoring Partnership website at www.vamentoring.org, you can find a multitude of opportunities in Richmond to give at least one hour a week to a young person in need.
Being a mentor has been one of best decisions I have made in my life and I encourage you all to be a mentor to someone who needs you. Together, we can truly make a difference.
Kelly Hodgkins is an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving with the VCU Division of Community Engagement.