College students mentoring locals

Through a computer screen (for now), SUNY Potsdam student athlete Josh Huiatt, left, is mentoring north country public school students on college options, career paths and the rigors of pursuing college athletics. SUNY Potsdam photo

POTSDAM — Pandemic or no pandemic, SUNY Potsdam women’s hockey players, members of the men’s lacrosse team and others are among a dozen athletes helping Malone Central School District students understand their options for college and what it takes to excel as a student athlete.

Although COVID-19 has changed the way things are done — with students and mentors interacting virtually through computer screens — it hasn’t changed the purpose of Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), now in its second year of a five-year initiative with Malone students. Mentors are helping students in grades six through nine explore ways to get excited about college degrees, sports and career readiness. Along the way, the athletes themselves are learning how to facilitate conversations for teaching and building the essential skills of teamwork, agility, resilience, networking, leadership, and goal setting.

The ease and flexible nature of virtual mentoring means it is likely to remain a desirable alternative even when the opportunity for important face-to-face interaction returns, said Chris Mazzella, program director for College For Every Student (CFES) Brilliant Pathways, which is based in Essex, N.Y., and spearheads the federal GEAR UP initiative.

“This is a great way to do mentoring, whether we have a pandemic or not; it allows flexibility for student athletes,” Mazzella said. “The students in GEAR UP have a wonderful opportunity for positive engagements with college students to discuss potential career pathways and academic encouragement.”

The student athletes and small teams of students meet virtually during free periods or lunch for 20 to 30 minutes, a couple of times per month. A total of 86 student athletes from Potsdam, SUNY Plattsburgh and Middlebury College are involved in the virtual mentoring partnership. Program planners at SUNY Potsdam and Brilliant Pathways are strategizing for a return to face-to-face programs for 2022.

“It is wonderful having our SUNY Potsdam athletes share their personal and academic journeys with students in our partner CFES/GEAR UP schools,” said Toby White, director of experiential education at SUNY Potsdam’s Lougheed Center for Applied Learning. “Hands-on opportunities for our students to apply their learning and make a difference are what Potsdam is all about.”

GEAR UP is a competitive federal program that provides multi-year grants to education and community partnerships and states, to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. CFES Brilliant Pathways — which develops programs based on three core practices: mentoring, essential skills, and pathways to college and career — received its first installment of the multi-year $11.6 million U.S. Department of Education grant in October 2018. The grant funds direct services to more than 2,000 students and their families each year, through partnerships with seven school districts in the Adirondack region.

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