by Dylan Andres
November 2016 – I’m a 22-year-old, fresh out of college and living in New York City. I’m working at one of the largest financial services firms in the world. I am in a position many dream of and have every reason to feel confident, but on this Saturday morning, I am feeling particularly insecure.
“Does she think I’m cool?” “What should I say?” “Can she tell that I’m nervous?” No, I’m not on a first date – the nerves ahead of meeting a potential romantic partner are far easier to handle. It is my first year as a mentor for Minds Matter, and I’m sitting across from Fatima, a 15-year-old student and the source of my anxiety. She has just learned that I will be one of her mentors for the next three years.
She does not look happy about it (I offer the image the right as evidence). I do my best to break down the walls. I ask her about school, her family, what kind of music she likes – anything in the hopes of establishing some common ground. Like a comic after a few poor jokes, I feel myself losing this audience of one.
I ask her if she likes movies and her face lights up! She tells me about what she’s seen recently and how she has dreams of becoming an actress. We exchange thoughts on movies we had both watched, and share recommendations. I breathe an internal sigh of relief.
Session comes to an end, and we say our goodbyes for the week. I leave completely unsure of how the next three years are going to go. I still have doubts that Fatima is happy to have me as a mentor, but, as a self-described cinephile, I am excited that we share a common interest.
November 23, 2019 – I’m in my fourth year volunteering for Minds Matter and first as a Team Leader. Today is the day students learn who their mentors will be for the next three years, and I am thrilled.
After our team completes a short activity to reveal the triads (perhaps unsurprisingly, the theme of the activity was famous TV and movie trios), mentors and students begin getting to know each other. It’s a familiar scene, but this time, I’m an observer, keenly watching how everyone is getting along.
I put a lot of thought into matching students and mentors, so I am ecstatic to overhear laughter coming from several of the triads. Other triads, not unexpectedly, are quieter. I recognize the looks on the mentors’ faces – scrambling to touch on any topic that might get their student to open up. I chuckle to myself, not only because I know the feeling, but because I know what lies ahead over the next three years.
Today, Fatima is a freshman at Hunter College. She’s studying biology but is also interested in business (that prestigious financial services firm I mentioned? She did an internship there… at the age of 18). She continues to work extremely hard, but still finds time for the occasional movie or TV show.
In our three years together, Fatima and I grew very close. In a lot of ways, she reminded me of myself in high school. She increasingly leaned on me for advice, and, by the time she graduated, I think she might have even been happy that I was her mentor (I offer a second image as evidence).
I am proud to have played a small part in getting Fatima to where she is, but the greatest reward of being her mentor was simply being able to watch her grow into a thoughtful, articulate and confident young woman. In a lot of ways, she was the star of her own movie, and I was just lucky to be in the audience.
As I wrap up the team’s session, I see students and mentors say their goodbyes and leave with the same mix of excitement and uncertainty I felt three years ago. But me? I am only excited, because I know this is the beginning of an amazing journey for my nine students and their mentors. Today was just the opening scene, and I am, once again, feeling lucky to be in the audience.
Colin is a 12 year veteran of Minds Matter, having started as a mentor in 2007, later as a Team Leader, and as a College Advisor for the last 5 years, now serving as Director of College Advising. He will be honored at this Thursday’s Brilliant Minds Benefit.
Q: How did you first get involved in Minds Matter?
Colin: My wife and I were looking for a volunteer opportunity to do together on the weekends. We came across Minds Matter on Idealist.org and decided to give it a try.
Q: Have your reasons for being involved evolved over time?
Colin: Yes, over time, both of us (my wife and I) have become very invested in the mission. We’ve gotten to know the college access landscape well and found a place in it where we can do something really important. We also really enjoyed the work itself— it was really fun to come in on Saturdays and work with Minds Matter students.
Q: Where did you go to college, and what did you study?
Colin: I went to Bowdoin College and studied music and sociology.
Q: How did college impact your life?
Colin: College felt like a blank slate; it was a chance to go and do what I wanted to do (even though I had no idea what I wanted to do). Early on, a professor told me that one of the best things you can do in college is take classes by the best, most interesting professors, regardless of subject. I took that advice and ran with it.
By taking courses that interested me, instead of what I thought I “should”, I let doors open that I never knew existed. This approach to life has been very rewarding and exciting. The nature of a liberal arts college and education has been implanted now in my brain—I always want to be doing many different things and thinking about the world in a variety of ways. This is when I feel most healthy and happy.
Q: Did you feel prepared for college?
Colin: I felt academically prepared for college, but less so in other ways. I went to a large public high school that had one college counselor for a class of 400 students (not dissimilar from the ratio of many of our students’ schools). There was definitely a college going culture [in Ithaca], but less overall guidance about finding a best-fit college. I also wasn’t prepared for the cultural differences with wealthier students, students from boarding schools, or similar..
Q: Why is it important to you to help our students get into college?
Colin: College graduates have greater socio-economic opportunity, yet this credential is not evenly accessible for all students—some students are just not going to college, and those who are, often struggle or feel they don’t belong. I want to help open up opportunities for others, and see college as a critical first step.
Q: What recommendations do you have for new volunteers?
Colin: Show up. Make it a priority every week. Take it seriously and that’s when you’ll get the most reward out of it. I also recommend investing time in getting to understand the mission of the organization. In this day and age, providing more opportunity is such an important cause, and if you don’t engage with that “why” you can feel lost in why you’re doing this. The bigger picture is the main focus—it’s all about creating opportunity.
Katherine is a Minds Matter alumna and Senior team leader.
Q: How many years have you been with Minds Matter?
Katherine: Ten years, including my time as a mentee and volunteer.
Q: Describe your relationship(s) with the student(s) you work with.
Katherine: I have gotten so close to each mentee on my team. Being able to see them grow into young adults is one of the most rewarding parts of my role. Each of my mentees are completely different from each other, but amazing in their own way. I have had genuine conversations with each one of them about their progress, life, and their goals that have allowed us to built a circle of trust and friendship. I truly believe that our relationship will be life-long.
Q: Any favorite Minds Matter memories?
Katherine: Where do I start! I have so many great memories but nothing beats seeing the look on my mentees faces when they get accepted into college.
Q: How have you benefited personally from your experience at Minds Matter?
Katherine: As a mentee, I appreciated Minds Matter and loved coming to sessions but I didn’t understand the full value until later. We were all accepted into a 4-year college and for some of us, we were the first in our families to do that. We came from families who immigrated from all over the world. And sometimes they did not understand what the college process entailed. Minds Matter stepped in and gave us that extra support and guidance to understand the system and put our best foot forward. We also gained a family- mentors, team leaders, writing advisors, directors, and each other. That is for life. I still keep in touch with my beloved mentors even though they are all over the world. I know I can always reach out to anyone from the program if I ever need guidance.
Q: What would you say to someone who is thinking about volunteering with Minds Matter?
Katherine: Do it! You are spending two hours of your weekend with phenomenal people, who you will learn so much from. I always look forward to spending my Saturdays with my team. Being a part of a bigger team with individuals who are working to guide your mentee creates a supportive environment. Knowing that you are helping them break out of the cycle of poverty and create a better life for themselves and their families is a reward feeling. That is why I have volunteered with Minds Matter for the last three years. I want the future generations to have that same chance and be more than a statistic.
Q: What is a fun fact about yourself?
Katherine: I’ve been to 24 countries and by the end of February it will be 27. I want the number of countries I’ve been to be higher than my age.
Courtney is the 2018 Minds Matter Achievement Scholar and a member of Syracuse University’s Class of 2021.
Q: What have you learned from your time with Minds Matter?
Courtney: I have learned how to grow better decision-making skills, especially during big transitional times in my life, such as college. Also, Minds Matter has truly taught me that I am never really alone, and I can always rely on the people around me.
Q: What has been your favorite Minds Matter moment?
Courtney: My favorite Minds Matter moment has to be graduation. It was bittersweet, but it was so nice to see that all of my peers who had gone through this journey with me were taking another step forward in their lives as well. It was great to celebrate all of our successes together and truly support one another.
Q: If you could give any piece of advice to a sophomore starting at Minds Matter, what would it be?
Courtney: My biggest piece of advice to a sophomore at Minds Matter is to take a chance on every opportunity that is presented to you. You never know the amazing things that you could learn or the great people you could meet. It will also allow you to discover much more about yourself than you would have originally thought.
Q: Where are you going to college and what are you hoping to study?
Courtney: I’m attending Syracuse University in the Whitman Leadership Scholars program and intend to study Marketing.
Q: What are you most looking forward to in college?
Courtney: I’m most looking forward to gaining a sense of independence in college, where I’m finally fully in control of my schedule and am able to be challenged with making decisions.
Support students like Courtney. Donate today!
Meet Melissa, a long-time volunteer who has helped shape the Minds Matter experience for countless students over the course of eight years.
Name: Melissa Sepe-Johnston
Profession: User experience consultant (I help companies make their websites and software more intuitive)
Current Role: Co-Director of College Advising
Previous role: Mentor and W&CT Adviser
Years in Minds Matter: 8
Question: What are your relationships like with the students you work with?
Melissa: Each year, my teammates and I work with 15-20 seniors apiece. We basically function like guidance counselors. I try to quickly learn about each student’s background and goals so that I can suggest schools that may be a good fit. As the year goes on, I help students understand the admissions process, navigate financial aid options, and make their final college decisions.
Q: What is your favorite part of Minds Matter?
Melissa: I live for graduation. It’s always sad to say goodbye to our amazing seniors, but it’s so much fun to celebrate their accomplishments, meet their families, and send them off to their new adventures in college.
Q: What is your favorite Minds Matter memory?
Melissa: Watching my mentee, Addia, graduate in 2012.
Q: How have you benefited personally from your experience at Minds Matter?
Melissa: I was 24, new to NYC, and just starting my career when I joined as a sophomore mentor, so I’ve literally grown up during my time with Minds Matter. Committing to session every Saturday definitely taught me a lot about discipline and accountability! Over the years I’ve also gone through something like four apartments, five jobs, and gotten married, but Minds Matter has been a constant presence in my life.
Q: What is a fun fact about you?
Melissa: I sing in a choir that only covers pop songs.
Melissa is one of many incredible volunteers who has not only impacted generations of Minds Matter students, but has shaped the culture of our organization through her dedication and passion for our work. Learn more about our amazing volunteers here.
Playing a crucial role in student recruitment, Minds Matter Student Ambassadors help usher in the next generation of Minds Matter students! By attending monthly leadership meetings, Student Ambassadors are trained in how to support prospective students through the application process and prepare for the interview, thus catalyzing a connection between their school communities and Minds Matter.
Student Ambassadors represent a crucial youth-leadership voice in program feedback and evaluation and work with both volunteers and staff to help shape and create the MM program. Student Ambassadors have also spoken at and attended the Brilliant Minds Benefit, held independent information sessions for students at their schools and welcomed potential students and their families at interview day. We could not do our work without them and we are proud of their leadership!
Leslie is a hard-working and enthusiastic junior. She talks with us about her passions, overcoming hardships, and her drive to succeed.
Q: What is your favorite part about Minds Matter?
Leslie: In Minds Matter I am constantly reminded of my capability. The community that has been built for us is a lovely blessing. Volunteers come to work with us and challenge us in order to go beyond our limits. They believe that we are capable of much more than we ourselves think. They are always there for us when we need them. They motivate us to work hard in school and support us in order to be college ready and pursue our dreams. They push us to try new things and hand us the resources we need in order to succeed in our journey.
Q: What is the hardest thing you’ve had to overcome?
Leslie: The hardest thing I’ve had to overcome is the loss of my mother in her battle with cancer. It happened so quickly that until this day it seems unreal. My mom is my motivation, role model and my strength to move forward and take myself and my dad out of the darkness we live in. When I look into my father’s eyes, all I see is hope and sacrifice. Hope that one day we will achieve the American Dream. Sacrifice because he works every day for long hours to pay the bills that lead to stress and frustration. He inspires me to strive in my education and standout. Both of my parents have built the person that I am today.
Q: What is your favorite subject in school?
Leslie: In school I have gravitated towards the power of math and I have developed a passion for art. This has inspired me to become an architect. I am fascinated by the work that can be done by combining math and art. Opportunities offered to low income students like myself at Minds Matter will benefit me in pursuing a career in architecture.
Q: What is an interesting fact about you?
Leslie: An interesting fact about me is that I have a passion for dancing, especially Salsa.
Support students like Leslie. Donate today!
“The college trip was really helpful in terms of exploring different campus environments. It was a taste of what college life might actually look like and it makes students think of where they might belong.”– Brandon, Class of 2018