CELEBRATE! profile: Leslie Gilman '13 and Sophie Biggar '13
The two Civic Engagement Scholars worked together to build a mentor program for children at a Burlington, N.C., elementary school.
For some children, the difference between success and failure in school hinges on a positive role model by their side. Mentors can empower young students. They can offer emotional and academic support. They can offer friendship.
And at one local elementary school, many of those mentor relationships are now with Elon University students, thanks to seniors Leslie Gilman and Sophie Biggar through their work with the Civic Engagement Scholars program.
“Mentoring is an extra layer of support and intentional attention that encourages students to value their true potential. It's a special relationship ... with someone older that checks in on them consistently,” Gilman said. “This consistency and reliability will hopefully encourage students to try harder in school, be confident, and hopefully go to college one day.”
Gilman and Biggar will share the details of their project April 25 from 11:30 a.m. -1:30 p.m. when the Civic Engagement Scholars program hosts poster displays and presentations in Oaks 212. Their project is the latest to be featured this week on students taking part in CELEBRATE! 2013.
Civic Engagement Scholars spend as many as three years participating in course work, service-learning classes, seminars, service trips and workshops to better understand the needs and problems of the local community and how to respond to these needs.
Gilman and Biggar’s mentoring program, which they designed after approaching the school principal about his building’s needs, pairs Elon University undergraduates with Harvey R. Newlin Elementary School students. Elon freshmen mentor second graders, sophomores mentor third graders, and so on. The idea is for college students to advance through their studies at the same pace as the elementary school children.
By the time this year’s freshmen graduate in 2016, the youth they’ve been mentoring will be “graduating” from Harvey Newlin.
The two psychology majors know they’ve asked a lot of their classmates who volunteered to be mentors. They recruited students involved in the university’s service-learning residential community and those studying to be teachers. “We only wanted applicants who understood it was a long-term commitment,” said Biggar, who came to Elon from Washington, D.C.
A number of those university volunteers all had mentors in their own lives and understand the importance of what they’re tasked to do, Gilman and Biggar said. They’ll meet once a week for the next several years and have already been introduced to parents through a potluck dinner. In time, the hope is for mentors to bring students to campus for athletic and cultural events that will expose the children to the benefits of attending college.
“This project is an authentic example of a sustainable community partnership that makes a weekly difference in lives of children,” said Associate Professor Alexa Darby, director of the Civic Engagement Scholars program. “I am proud of Sophie and Leslie for listening to the needs of their community partner.”
Because of their pending graduation, the duo are now in the process of finding younger Civic Engagement Scholars to take the reins of the program.
Both women emphasize that the success of the project was due not to building their own ideas, but by reaching out the the elementary school administration about specific priorities and specific needs. Part of creating a sustaiable program requires that assessment of a community's stated desires.
“It’s easy to look at an organization or school or community and get excited about what you think needs to be done without looking at what the community actually needs,” said Gilman, a native of Southern Maryland. “It comes from a good place, wanting to help, but in many cases it may cause more harm than good. You don’t know that unless someone lets you know.”
School officials praised the duo’s work and, more broadly, the university’s ethos of service and civic engagement.
“We’re hoping this thing will grow into something really big, for both Elon students and our kids. I felt this was going to be a great blessing for both parties involved. When you give of service, you get more out of it then the people you’re serving,” said school Principal Larry Conte. “They really wanted to help and they’re passionate about it. Passion moves people, it drives people, and they’re excited and want to make a difference in life."
What’s next for the two psychology majors with an interest in school counseling? Biggar will spend 2013-14 in Washington, D.C., helping City Year, an AmeriCorps program that places volunteers in public schools to work with young students who exhibit early warning signs of dropping out as they age. Gilman is applying to a master’s program for teaching.
Gone from campus in just a few weeks, a part of them will always remain at the Title I elementary school they sought to help. “Their legacy here will be the tutoring program. We’re not going to know the long-term effects of this for awhile, but it’ll be cool,” Conte said. “We’re excited about the opportunity for what it can become. And Elon University has been awesome, a great partner for Harvey Newlin Elementary School.”
CELEBRATE! is Elon University's annual, weeklong celebration of student achievements in academics and the arts. It runs this year from April 22-28.