Donovan StewartHi! My name is Donovan Stewart, and I am the GEAR UP Specialist for Durango High School. As a GEAR UP specialist, I get to work with students on goal setting, planning, preparing, and taking steps to ensure that they graduate and transition into their post-secondary life with the support, knowledge, and confidence that will help them thrive beyond high school.

As a first-generation college student who grew up in a nontraditional household, I had not given much thought to what I would do as an adult. My mother passed away when I was young, and I spent much of my youth and adolescence living with my grandmother and aunts and uncles from time to time. My family had just moved from Kingston, Jamaica, and they were trying to navigate a land that was new to them. My family did a fantastic job getting us established in America; their ambition, determination, and work ethic carried them a long way and provided me with the best upbringing I could have without the presence of a mother or father in my life.

However, my family had some limitations in their knowledge and resources concerning careers and college. I was encouraged to go to college, but I would be the first in my family to do so. My understanding of life, which encompassed career ideas and college, came from observations in my home and watching TV.  I had many trusting and loving adult relationships in my family, but no one could provide me with a pathway aligned with my interest. No one could help me set specific goals and hold me accountable in my area of interest until I met my mentor.

My mentor was a basketball coach named JV Bell.  Before I believed in myself as a basketball player, my coach believed in me. He invested time in me and provided me with the knowledge that I could use to better myself and my skills. He helped me set goals and broaden my skills which helped me become the best basketball player in my neighborhood, on my team, and eventually one of the best in my county and state. My mentor, Coach Bell, helped me shift my mindset from being unaware and uncertain about my future to being passionate, purposeful, driven, and having a definitive plan about what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to play basketball in college and then in the NBA. With the support and guidance of my mentor, I continued to work and eventually became one of the country’s top one hundred basketball players. I earned a scholarship to play basketball at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV). I owe so much to my mentor. Because of him, I set goals for myself, believe in myself, and approach each moment of my basketball journey like I had the answers to the test. His impact on my life helped me become a full-ride athletic scholarship recipient and a first-generation college student and graduate.  His mentorship changed my life. My trajectory and accomplishments would not have been possible without the role he played in my development. His mentorship paid dividends for me, my five kids at home,  and the many students I’m privileged to influence as a public educator.

I recently spoke to a classroom of first-year high school students, and I asked them if they had a mentor. Only a few students raised their hands. I went on to talk to them about the benefits of mentorship and how important it was to be open to and to seek out good mentorship. A colleague brought to my attention that they all have mentors but probably have not identified them as such. If they are anything like me, I know that they are mentored and influenced at home, in the community, and through various forms of media (social, entertainment, etc.),  which fills that void of mentorship. Having a mentor is one of the most impactful things that has happened to me, and there are great things that can happen for our students through mentorship.

To me, a mentor can be a trusted advisor that can guide, support, coach, and motivate a less experienced person in specific areas of life. A mentor can also see things in people that people sometimes can’t see in themselves.

Mentorship is about building connections and relationships. Laurie Barron & Patti Kenney, authors of, We Belong, a book about building a strong school community, discuss how students thrive on trusting relationships. According to Barron & Kenney, extensive research supports the conclusion that caring and trusting relationships are essential for learning. Among many other benefits,  studies show that strong, trusting relationships improve student academic performance, self-esteem & self-regulation, student engagement, and motivation and self-direction. These are all things that we want for our students! These are all things that our students deserve, no matter their social, economic, or racial background. Many of us are fortunate to happen upon these relationships, but many students go without mentorship designed to help them reach their potential. So, how do we do what we can to reach more students?

Student Success Agency (SSA) has partnered with the Nevada GEAR UP team to help alleviate the inherent challenges around mentorship and reach more students. SSA is the first agency to represent students instead of celebrities and athletes by pairing students with an Agent (mentor) based on their interests. Their Agents then provide our students with guidance, support, tutoring, emotional support, personal branding, and more as they work towards their goals.

SSA Agents are vetted and background checked and communicate with our students via text message, emails, and phone calls through secured and monitored software after receiving parent consent. It is a new and revolutionary approach to mentorship, and the early results and data are promising.

We want to reach more students, serve more underrepresented subgroups in our communities, improve student outcomes in achievement and attendance, and increase our students’ enrollment to college and other post-secondary pathways. SSA is helping us as educators achieve those end goals. You can find more information about how SSA is serving students on the local and national level and how to get involved here.