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Mentoring Program Preps John Muir High School Seniors

Students at John Muir High School are forming friendships over the years with mentors they met when they were freshmen.

Phyllis Boyajian talks about math, college prep, and helping someone realize her potential when the subject of Byaney Flores, a senior at John Muir High School, comes up. But she also mentions baking Christmas bread and cookies together, along with how their relationship never felt like typical teacher-and-student fare.

"I remember her asking me one time, 'I have a friend who's having trouble with math. Can you help her?'," said Boyajian, a former high school teacher who lives in Altadena and teaches math at Pasadena City College. "And I did. I sat down with the two of them. That's a special memory for me -- it showed she trusted me enough."

Their relationship started in 2008, when Byaney was a freshman and preparing to enter the Footsteps To College mentoring program offered by College Access Plan, a Pasadena-based nonprofit that aims to prepare at-risk students for the trials of college.

John Muir High School functions as the program's "home base," where students are recruited, then meet with prospective adult mentors. If the mentor and student hit it off, they are then paired together until graduation. There are currently 10 seniors in the mentoring program, and 15 freshmen are being recruited to take part.

Boyajian volunteered for the program in late 2007 after taking a break from her 20-year career as a math teacher. Byaney eventually found her "California grandma," someone she could confide in who was unlike anyone else.

"I had a lot of issues," she said through emerging tears and a trembling voice. Byaney is applying to Stanford, University of La Verne and Pomona College. "It's … nice to have someone to talk to, who'd take that in."

There's no set criteria for who gets recruited, such as grades or test score average, said Monique Hyman, College Access Plan's executive director and co-founder. Instead, they go by feedback from teachers and the various interests of students who apply (and even those who don't).

"We want to help kids who have that kind of spark," she said. "Kids who might slip through the cracks."

Byaney originally thought her spark was going to be in law. Then it was possibly psychology. Now, she said, she's thinking about other fields.

"First I hated math," she said. "Now it's something I want to do … I want to be a chemistry teacher or a math teacher."

When Hyman thinks she's found someone, she goes after them. Monica Gonzalez, another John Muir senior in the mentoring program, said she encountered Hyman while she was getting recognized with an award for her GPA.

"She was staring at me the whole time," Monica said with a smile. "I could tell she was totally waiting for the right moment to talk, and then she was like, 'Hi!'"

Monica calls her Altadena mentor, Caroline McManus, her "other mom," after being initially very picky about finding the right mentor.

"I wanted to find someone I could really be open with," she said. "And when I saw her, that first time, she just had this smile. I was like, "OK, this is the one.'"

In addition to college prep, mentors and students take part in field trips to college campuses as well as a variety of workshops designed around building bonds and focusing on life aspects such as leadership. Boyajian remembers a large group train trip to Chinatown.

"It was a great way to be together without being alone together," she said. "It was interested to hear the kids talking … some had never been on the train before."

Monica remembered a retreat to Alpine Meadows in the San Bernardino Mountains, where she said she and her fellow students "broke out of their shells."

"It's like a family," said Monica, who's applying to Cal Poly Pomona and Azusa Pacific University. "We've all grown up together, and there's a feeling of, "Oh my God, we made it!'"

With that realization comes the spectre of college life for Byaney, Monica and either other students. Monica, who wants to get into business management, said she wants to stay close to her family, and that the farthest she's probably going to get is Pomona. Byaney's not worried about the college experience wherever she goes.

"To me, it'll be the same people I go to school with, nothing new," she said. "I'm still going to be me."

That's reinforces what Boyajian said she has known about Byaney for the past few years.

"She has a strong internal feeling of who she is," she said. "She's not going to be led into anything. But if she ever gets homesick, I'll come get her."

Redmond Carolipio October 28, 2011 at 03:35 PM
Another aspect of mentoring came up when I talked to Lina Morin, the Footsteps to College program coordinator, who handles a lot of the nuts-and-bolts stuff when it comes to college prep for these students, such as the application process, finding the right school, etc. She mentioned that even with the avalanche of changes in the college-going process and the job market in the past few years, lots of students still have a very traditional way of looking at careers: lawyers, doctors, police officers. Would anyone, parents, students, or parents of students, be willing to share what their college application experience has been like? As Phyllis told me, "Back then, if you wanted to go to college and just had the money, you went." For my part, I had to write entrance essays to most schools.
Laura Monteros October 28, 2011 at 05:11 PM
Writing from my children's experiences: Essays, yes, which means writing skills. My kids felt they did not have to write as much in high school as their private-school peers did, so that's where PUSD needs to step up their game. If you're unsure, have a couple people read your essay, and tailor your essay for each application. The essays are often not read, but they should be both businesslike and personal--what did you do, what was your life like, that makes your different from someone else? The essay is an opportunity to fill in the gaps. Extracurriculars are more important than ever. Top colleges want diversity in their student body, and this includes economics, experiences, backgrounds, locations, education, acitivites. Really research the schools, and start early--freshman year. My kids went to four different universities, and they were the right choices for each one. To make the choice, a student needs to know which schools pique their interest and what the school expects in students. Yale expects straight As in addition to all the things listed above. Go to any informational sessions offered. East Coast schools send reps out here to have Q&A sessions with prospective students, and local schools such as USC have them on campus. If you apply, and a rep wants to meet with you for an interview, go. Even if it is a school you have decided against, go. It's good practice, and you might find out you like it better than you thought.

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