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Empowering high school students to reach their goals

  • Doctoral students
    Doctoral students  Kat Sperandio M.Ed. '14, Ph.D. '19 and Alex Hilert Ph.D. '20 are co-directors of Project Empower, a cross-campus collaboration that provides mentoring and other support services to students attending three local high schools.  
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High school is a stressful time — and may be particularly difficult for students who have few social supports but need and want to be achieving big goals. Supporting these students is the expanded goal of Project Empower, a partnership between the School of Education and the three high schools within Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools. While the program originally focused solely on helping students with issues related to substance use and still screens participating high school students for substance use risk, the focus is now on empowering high school students to build their networks and work towards personal goals through the Empowered Learners mentoring program.

“The partnership with the Williamsburg James-City County schools, coupled with the support of the local high schools and their staff, allows our program to provide this service,” explained Patrick Mullen, assistant professor of counselor education and faculty supervisor for the program. “I cannot overstate how grateful I am for this partnership as it allows us to serve the community and to create learning opportunities for our mentors.”

Under Mullen’s guidance, third-year doctoral student Kat Sperandio M.Ed. '14, Ph.D. '19 has been instrumental in guiding the transition towards a more expansive mentoring program.

“Mentorship is seen as a valuable asset in a high school,” explained Sperandio, who has been providing supervision for the mentors for the past two and a half years. “It serves to increase social capital. Our mentors help students develop their social network, become better connected, work on the goals they have their eyes on and accomplish those goals successfully.”

The students who benefit most are likely to be the ones who are having difficulty creating social networks on their own, who aren’t sure how to reach out to adults for help, or who simply don’t have people in their lives checking in on them to find out what kind of support they need. Students are referred to the program through school staff such as counselors, ESL teachers and school resource officers. Occasionally, they are self-referred or a parent requests the mentoring relationship.

Project Empower has also strengthened cross-campus collaborations. The team has worked with Elizabeth Raposa, assistant professor of psychological sciences, whose research focuses on mentor-mentee relationships. Together, Mullen, Raposa, and Sperandio developed a 13-week curriculum that provided structure for the mentors as they work with their mentees. At the end of 13 weeks, the students receive a certificate and may choose to continue the mentoring relationship if they desire.

Raposa, whose work focuses on how mentoring can help children and teens growing up in high stress environments, explained that she and Mullen pulled from existing evidence-based curricula. Specifically, the Empowered Learners curriculum is an adaptation of Connected Scholars, a university-based mentorship program aimed at helping students thrive in college through enhancing their networking skills. These adjustments were made by Sperandio and Mullen with the help of Raposa and Sarah Schwartz, an assistant professor of psychology at Suffolk University in Boston.  

“I am hoping we can reach students who otherwise wouldn’t be connected to a support service in their schools,” Raposa said, adding that the curriculum also helps students develop the social skills needed to build that network.  “The program will help them to think about ways they might connect better to formal services — how to speak to school counselors, how to consider attending counseling at a free clinic and also to think more about other informal avenues of support, such as teachers, extended family or faith leaders — people they have never thought to reach out to.”

The 2018-2019 school year is the first full year implementing the new curriculum. The team first conducted a trial run in the spring of 2018 after which mentors and mentees provided feedback to improve the program.

“One of the things our mentors are really good at is getting connected with the schools. They have become submerged in the community of the high school. They’ve made contact with all the people who know the high schoolers and can identify who is eligible,” said Sperandio.

Some of those networks are born out of creative thinking about who in the school encounters vulnerable youth. Some are born out of experience. For example, mentor and school psychology student Ray Villareal’s prior career included serving as active reserve with the U.S. Navy and later as a school resource officer in the Santa Anna Unified School District in Southern California.

“School resource officers have a relationship with students that is unique from administration and teachers. You have more play in what you can say and what you can do, so some of the kids who are getting into trouble, you have the range to talk to them outside of the classroom and kind of get to know what is going on, things that they don’t normally tell others,” he said. Villareal works with five mentees and may add two more this spring.

He also draws upon the experiences of his own teen years. He recalled, “I grew up without anyone, really. My brother and I blazed our own paths. I dropped out of high school in the 9th  grade. I figured I would help people who are struggling with the same kind of struggles I had when I was younger. I want to help the kids who don’t have anyone else.”  

The 29-year-old noted that the mentees often see their time together as a counseling appointment, a safe space to open up and be vulnerable.  

Even with the curriculum as a guide, Sperandio said, the way that each mentor builds a relationship with their mentees and with the school adds a unique flavor to their work. The first meeting between mentor and mentee is all about getting to know the mentee and their potential goals. The second meeting involves a screening and brief intervention for substance use. In addition to substance abuse risk, mentors screen for a variety of mental health problems the teen might be struggling with.

“This is a way to open that door of conversation, to inquire about it and get them thinking about it. If you’re not talking about it how can you ever receive support if you need it?” said Sperandio.

Project Empower currently has 10 mentors serving approximately 25 students at Jamestown High School, Warhill High School, and Lafayette High School. Sperandio, who is finishing her dissertation this semester, is handing over leadership of the project to second-year doctoral student Alex Hilert.

This year, Project Empower also expanded its mentoring opportunities to undergraduate students.  Emma Preston, a 21-year-old junior from Austin, Texas, began her mentoring work as with Griffin School Partnerships, which connects undergraduates with middle school students who could benefit from a mentor. Her mentee was about to graduate and go on to high school — but Preston felt her mentee could still benefit from a supportive mentoring relationship.

“I felt really uncomfortable ending that partnership,” she said. She reached out to the faculty advisor for Griffin School Partnerships, who in turn encouraged her to speak with Raposa — who happened to be her research advisor already. Raposa knew of Project Empower and made the connections necessary for Preston to shift her mentoring commitment to Project Empower. She has continued her mentoring relationship with her original mentee, works with another teenager at Jamestown High School, and may begin working with a third mentee this spring.

The mentoring work dovetails with the focus of her research under Raposa, with whom she is working to understand how depression or anxiety in a mentor impacts the mentoring relationship.

“This is important because we work with college students who are mentors, and yet we also know college students on average have higher rates of depression and anxiety. I really wanted to understand how that might impact mentoring,” she said.

Mullen argued that the cross-campus collaborations strengthened the project and William & Mary’s connections to the community.

“Our partnership with faculty across campus has also provided opportunities to learn about effective methods for implementing school-based mentorship programs, and allowed for the inclusion of mentors from other parts of campus that includes undergraduate students,” he said.

Preston added that, in her experience, the young people reached by Project Empower have a significant need for support.

“They often don’t have people who are checking in with them to see how they are, whether they are doing their homework, or whether they have thought about college,” she said. The goal of Project Empower is to help the mentees build social capital, expand their networks of support, and advocate for themselves — and at the same time, address the personal goals mentees might have. “Sometimes they might say, I want to get a better grade, or it might be, I want to make more friends,” she said. “I think all those things go hand in hand with what we are about.”

Preston acknowledges the many ways in which support exists in her own life, including the impact of her advisor Raposa and the emotional and social support provided to her by her sorority sisters.

“I get so much support and encouragement from them, and when you’re in a helping profession, you need that to balance out the work you are doing,” she said. She also highlighted the importance of the supervision she has received from Sperandio and Hilert.

“I don’t think we talk enough about how beneficial that supervision is,” she said. “We focus a lot on the mentor-mentee relationship but through supervision I have the chance to learn from someone who has gone through this before: I am not expected to manage my cases alone.”

What’s the magic in mentoring? Preston says she believes it is the combination of her authority as a somewhat older mentor, combined with the elements of friendship and confidentiality, that allows students to really open up to her.

Ultimately, according to Mullen, all the effort in creating, supervising and maintaining Project Empower serves both the broader Williamsburg community and the William & Mary community.

“I believe our mentors and supervisors ultimately want to help students overcome the challenges they face, whether through being a counselor, school psychologist, or faculty member. Project Empower creates a means for them to achieve this aim while completing their training programs,” he said.