Focus Forward mentoring program celebrates 10 years of success

OSWEGO — SUNY Oswego’s successful, student-oriented peer-mentoring program Focus Forward is celebrating its 10th anniversary as it continues to cultivate student interest and bring new schools into its program.

The school-based mentoring program matches college students with middle and high school students who are struggling or are at risk academically, socially or emotionally. The college students work one-on-one or in small groups of mentees, allowing them to form bonds.

“I joined Focus Forward my first semester of college and have continued into my last semester,” said Katie Weber, a double major in adolescent education and in English at SUNY Oswego. “I have made lasting connections and lifelong impacts.”

Then known as Mentor-Scholar, the college program launched in 2011 in the Oswego Middle and High schools. Eight additional schools around Oswego County have joined the mentoring program over the past decade.

Since 2018, Focus Forward has used a co-coordinating model. One coordinator is described as having a narrow breadth, meaning that they work closely with only one school district, the Oswego School District, allowing the mentors to work closely with their students. The second is the wide-breadth coordinator who leads several various groups of mentors across the remaining schools.

“Over the course of the 10 years that we have partnered with SUNY Oswego’s Focus Forward mentoring program, it has continued to grow to include closer to 75 mentors and mentees,” said Mary Beth Fiero, acting principal at the Oswego Middle School. ”Focus Forward is one of our most popular offerings.”

Students accepted into the program take a general studies class, GST 311, earning one upper-division credit each semester. After one semester of being a peer mentor, students can apply to be a team leader. As a team leader, responsibilities grow and students are able to plan various activities with mentees. In addition, a team leader also receives two upper-division credits per semester instead of the previous one credit.

In 2018, for example, the college’s office of Experiential Courses and Engaged Learning (EXCEL) registered 149 college mentors from 30 different majors providing 4,200 mentoring hours to 180 student mentees in grades 7-12 from the four local school districts (eight programs) partner sites.

Community involvement and relationship building are part of this program’s consistent success. SUNY Oswego traditionally hosts an annual recognition dinner for the mentors and mentees across partnering districts.

Each spring before the pandemic, mentees came onto campus to explore the college’s offerings, which helps open up higher education as a potential future path. Team leaders have carried out various field trips including an environmental clean-up at the Sterling Nature Center.

Gaining experience

“During my time with Focus Forward, I was able to develop strategies to help make learning and completing assignments more engaging and enjoyable for students, many of which I’ve altered for remote learning,” said Janet Cuevas, a SUNY Oswego psychology major and former mentor and team leader at CiTi CARE sites who graduated in 2020.

Many of the student-mentors have used this opportunity to build relationships and connections with the various school employees or other student-mentors. Current team leader Erin Vargo expressed that she has connected with college instructors, school teachers, mentees and other mentors from being a part of Focus Forward.

“This program has not only allowed me to feel more comfortable with who I am, but to be more empathetic and understanding of others,” said Vargo, a double major in English and adolescent education with a concentration in English.

Through its consistent growth and acceleration, Focus Forward continues to offer mentors new opportunities to work with struggling students and build upon their own individual abilities, whether it is improving listening skills or becoming an overall more empathetic person.

“I would encourage students at SUNY Oswego to become a mentor with Focus Forward,” said Cuevas. “Knowing that there is a student who looks up to you and admires you can be an excellent motivator to continue working to become a better version of yourself.”

When looking back at the skills achieved through mentoring, Cuevas expressed that those moments have allowed her to grow as a person and achieve her current job as a caregiver for a boy on the autism spectrum. Through mentoring, Weber achieved a job as a student teacher on campus.

“Most experiences I have had are a direct result of Focus Forward. Because of the connections I made, I was able to be a teaching assistant for English 102, I helped orchestrate campus clean-ups and advance in my college career as well as my professional career,” said Weber.

“When I look back on college in general I consider Focus Forward my most memorable college experience,” said Weber. “Focus Forward has been the best thing I have done in college, I have made several connections to the Oswego community as well as lifelong friendships.”

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