Midd Kid mentors aid local high school students with post-grad goals

MIDDLEBURY — To get a sense of the pressure high school students and educators must feel about college prep, one needs only examine the methodology behind U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 rankings of the best high schools in the nation. “College readiness” is the single greatest factor in determining a school’s score, accounting for three times as much weight as “graduation rate.”
“College readiness” means a lot more than access to Advanced Placement classes or tests or test-prep courses, however, and it was with that in mind that Middlebury College student Megan Ernst founded Middlebury College Access Mentors (MiddCAM) six years ago.
MiddCAM pairs college student mentors with Middlebury Union High School (MUHS) juniors who are primarily first-generation and/or low-income college applicants. With support and training from the college’s Center for Community Engagement and MUHS counseling staff, mentors help their mentees navigate the daunting college application process.
“MiddCAM exists to assure that students at an information disadvantage, but have a demonstrated interest in attending college, don’t fall through the cracks,” wrote Ivan Zeavin-Moss in a 2013 Middlebury Campus newspaper story, just days before the program launched.
Sometimes, addressing that information disadvantage starts with clearing up confusion.
“A lot of high school students have misconceptions about what college is,” said MiddCAM co-president Conner Gilbert, who is a first-generation college student from Georgia, Vermont. “One student thought they would be required to major in international relations to be eligible to study abroad.”
An advantage college-age mentors have over parents and guidance counselors is that they’ve been through the process more recently.
“What we’re guiding students through feels very much the same as what I went through when I was in high school,” said co-president Lily Massaro, a senior from Portland, Ore. Massaro relied on her older sister and her guidance counselor for information about college, she added.
And the concerns are largely the same.
“What college to choose or what kind of college,” Gilbert said. “And how to pay for it. There are misconceptions about paying for college, especially paying full price for more expensive schools. All the information you need is there, but students don’t always know what to do with it.”
This sentiment was echoed at MiddCAM’s monthly meeting in April, which took place in a classroom at the Community College of Vermont (CCV) in downtown Middlebury.
“Our mentees’ biggest worries are about finances,” said one mentor. “They don’t know what’s out there, especially regarding financial aid.”
Another mentor shared what it was like to work one-on-one.
“Some mentees are intimidated at first to be dealing with ‘elite’ Middlebury College students,” they said. “Which is why we like to develop personal relationships at the beginning. But that’s tough, too, because you’re supposed to be structuring things month to month for consistency. ‘Remember what we talked about? Did you do that?’ But then I remember what it was like being a junior in high school.”
CCV hosted April’s meeting to introduce MiddCAM mentors to alternative paths to higher education, including its Early College and Dual Enrollment programs, which are offered with support from the Vermont Agency of Education.
“I think MiddCAM is a great program,” said Jennifer Stefani, coordinator of academic services at CCV. “It’s a generous way for successful college students to assist college-bound students who need an extra hand guiding them through the college application process, which often seems to require a college degree and strong nerves just to navigate.”
Not only do first-generation college students struggle to make sense of application and financial aid information, but when they finally arrive at college, they often feel homesick and disadvantaged in ways that continuing-generation college students may not, Stefani explained.
“Having the support and advice of a mentor can really help with that as well,” she said.
In recent years, MiddCAM’s mission has expanded to include not only alternative paths toward four-year colleges, but alternatives to four-year colleges.
“We’re not only helping students who want to attend a four-year college,” Gilbert explained. “Some mentees want to attend culinary school or join the military or pursue other alternatives. It’s important that as mentors we are supporting rather than shaping their goals.”
Mentors get matched with mentees based on such criteria as personality, academics or athletic interests.
“One match might be made because the mentor and mentee are both first-generation or come from some other similar background,” Massaro said. The organization boasts mentors from widely different backgrounds, she added.
The process begins during the college’s January Term, when mentors receive training, handbooks and even a list of ice-breaker questions they can ask when they meet their mentees for the first time.
Pairs typically meet every week or every other week all the way through the high school student’s senior year.
In addition, mentors meet as a group once a month, and check-ins are encouraged.
“We tell mentors that there is no shame in asking for help if they’re struggling to make a connection,” Gilbert said.
Six years ago, even before they made their first matches, MiddCAM’s founders were already thinking about expanding into other Addison County schools. In 2019, the program took the first step toward that goal by launching a drop-in program at Mount Abraham Union High School.
Erin Dufault, a guidance counselor at Mount Abe, was critical in establishing the program.
“It’s really beneficial for high school students to connect with current college students on this level,” Dufault said. “These drop-in sessions allow students to take advantage of an hour a week to focus on future planning activities that can range from doing a college or career search, signing up for the SAT/ACT or just spending time talking to the mentors about their own college experience.”
Gilbert has been amazed by the connections he’s been able to establish with Mt. Abe students, he said.
“Even after just one hour it seems like you’ve known them for much longer,” he said.
Mount Abe hopes to build its relationship with MiddCAM and offer additional planning support to 11th- and 12th-graders next year, Dufault said.
If current trends are any indication, there will be plenty of college students to meet the program’s future needs.
In 2019, MiddCAM trained 22 mentors, Massaro said — up from 14 the year before.
“Middlebury College students,” she said, “are definitely looking for an opportunity to connect with the larger community.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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