CECS mentors help metro Detroit students imagine life after high school

June 18, 2018

Can young people’s dreams of higher education be ignited through near peer mentoring?

Ronan Barber (left) of Westland shows off his latest coding project to UM-Dearborn student mentor Shawn El-Souri at the Jefferson Barns Community Vitality Center.
Ronan Barber (left) of Westland shows off his latest coding project to UM-Dearborn student mentor Shawn El-Souri at the Jefferson Barns Community Vitality Center.

Sean Galvin often tells a story explaining why he became an educator and not an astronaut—the basic premise of which is that growing up, he knew a ton of the former but not any of the latter.

“My mother was a teacher, my aunts and uncles were teachers, there were educators basically everywhere I turned,” Galvin said. “Being an astronaut—I probably thought about doing that as a kid. But you can see how that might fade from your list of career possibilities if you didn’t know anyone who could tell you how to actually do that.”

It’s a simple but convincing argument for how exposure to real-life examples can shape your future—and one that’s at the heart of an after-school program Galvin heads up at the Jefferson Barns Community Vitality Center in Westland’s historic Norwayne neighborhood. For his students, the horizon of possibilities usually falls far short of a trip to space or even being a teacher. Here, Galvin said, many families face a long list of economic challenges. And for the young people in the neighborhood, the idea of going to college “might as well be a trip to the moon.”

Galvin, however, is hoping to bring that particular dream closer to earth, and he has some compelling people around him to help him make the case.

For the past few years, UM-Dearborn College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) undergraduates have become familiar faces around his STEM-focused learning lab. They’re officially here as tutors and mentors, but Galvin smiles wryly when he says their real job is simply to “be there and be helpful.”

Some days that includes helping students ages 8 to 18 with their math or science homework. But if a kid wants help shooting videos for his or her YouTube channel, or printing something weird on the lab’s 3D printer, or playing with the VR goggles, that’s just as good. Anything “productive” that keeps them engaged, Galvin said, is pretty much fair game.

The structure may be loose, but the strategy here is well defined. The collaboration between the lab and the UM-Dearborn students is part of a “near peer” mentoring program run by the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s Office of Extended Learning and Outreach, and the aim is, basically, to help solve a version of Galvin’s astronaut dilemma.

Specifically, CECS is trying to find creative ways to get more kids from under-resourced communities into college in STEM fields, and one of the approaches they think has legs is simply providing opportunities for those kids to meet, learn from and develop a relationship with a real-life college student.

“For some of the kids, our coaches might be the first college student they’ve ever met—let alone a student studying computer science and engineering,” said Rayna Anderson, who helps oversee the near peer program that now has five mentors at two sites in metro Detroit. “They may have a lot of questions about how you do that, and what it’s like—and those are exactly the kinds of conversations we hope they have. But this is not about recruitment. They’re there to nurture a positive attitude about higher ed and life after high school—as well as nurture some math and science skills.”

Anderson said her team also encourages their near pear coaches to share experiences about their lives, and many mentors have their own moving stories about overcoming adversity. For example, two-year mentor Shawn El-Souri was born in the U.S., grew up in Lebanon and returned to the U.S. for his college studies—a journey that involved leaving his family and friends in an uncertain world back home.

“I’ve been in situations where my family was living without electricity for weeks or my best friend passed away because of conflicts in the region,” El-Souri said. “And while I can never truly understand what some of the students might be living through, I think that helps me have empathy. I’ve lived my own version of it. And it shows them that, yes, even if the odds feel like they are stacked against you, you can push forward.”

Conversations like this, El Souri said—the times when things “get real”—are more the exception than the norm. More often, he says the kids keep the energy creative and light—like the time a couple students spent the day teaching him the ins and outs of the Japanese manga Yu-Gi-Oh card game. That’s just one of several things his students have mentored the mentor on.

In fact, Anderson said the lessons the student coaches are taking away are just as much a part of the mentoring program as the math, science and life lessons they impart.

“Today’s engineering world is really focused on cooperation and collaboration,” Anderson said. “Employers are looking for people who not only have all the technical training, but those ‘soft’ interpersonal skills. So the mentoring is obviously really important for those high school and middle school students, who we hope now are dreaming of going to college. But it’s also important for our students. It helps arm them with an important tool they’ll need to achieve their own dreams.”


The Jefferson Barns Learning Lab is supported by Byrne JAG State FY 2018 #2016-MU-BX-0703, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, and administered by the Michigan State Police.