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Mentorship program supports black high school students

FELLOWSHIP AND SUPPORT: Partners in the Imani Mentorship Program celebrated the success of the program at a special event this spring. Pictured are (from left) U of T Scarborough Principal Franco Vaccarino, mentor and U of T Scarborough student Danielle Hutchinson, and program supporter Mary Anne Chambers. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

When you’re a teenager, having someone to turn to for advice and support can make a world of difference.

That’s the premise behind the Imani Mentorship Program (IMP), an innovative partnership designed to support the personal and academic goals of Scarborough high school and middle school students, with a focus on youth in the black community. It also aims to encourage young people to consider and pursue post-secondary education.

The mentors are university students at U of T Scarborough, while their young counterparts are students from local secondary schools, including Cedarbrae, West Hill, Pope John Paul II, and St. Margaret’s, a middle school.

“The mentors helped us with so many things -- not just schoolwork,” said Grade 9 student Anyonam Tutu-Brenpong. “I used to dread going to French class because I wasn’t doing well and I wasn’t getting along with the teacher. The mentors helped me with my homework, and also gave me advice on how to deal with the teacher and how to improve in class. I started to do much better because I took their advice. I felt more confident, and my marks went up.”

Visiting the university and having the support of the mentors made a big difference, she added. “The mentors really cared about us,” said Tutu-Brenpong, 14. “It was exciting to see how dedicated they were to university, and it also let me see if I’d be interested in university in the future. Now I know for sure that I want to go to university, and I want to become a scientist.”

The IMP is a joint partnership between Imani -- The Black Students’ Alliance at U of T Scarborough, the East Scarborough Boys & Girls Club, and the University of Toronto Scarborough. This year the program had approximately 20 mentors and 35 young participants. Launched in 2007, the program is being supported by a gift from Mary Anne Chambers, former MPP for Scarborough East and previously Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services.

Earlier this spring, students, teachers and administrators from the partnering organizations gathered for a special celebration of the Imani Mentorship Program, The campus celebration took place in the Academic Resource Centre (ARC) special events room. It featured a song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by the Imani choir, and a moving solo performed by student Alanna Craigg with electronic piano accompaniment by Dalton Tennant. The word “Imani” means faith or belief in the Swahili language.

“This program opens a whole new world to the youth in our community,” said Tony Jno Baptise, Manager of Youth and Community Outreach for the Boys & Girls Clubs of East Scarborough. “We know that the rate of early leavers from high school in East Scarborough is much higher than the Ontario average, and the Imani Mentorship Program puts a human face on the university. For these youth, getting to know the campus with the help of university student mentors means that university will not always be such a huge jump for them. It becomes something that they are familiar with, a place that they can come and feel welcome.”

Rashelle Litchmore, a U of T Scarborough student, served as IMP coordinator for three years and congratulated the mentors and students who participated in the program. “I’m proud that we were able to help put together such a unique partnership,” said Litchmore, who is graduating this year with a psychology degree. “The program emphasizes community spirit, and it connects grassroots organizations, the university, and local high school students.”

“Both the mentors and mentees benefit from this program,” Litchmore added. “High school and middle school students get the chance to be exposed to university and get tutoring help as well as general guidance on life skills. At the same time, it enables university student to become engaged with our community.”

Certificates and gifts were presented to program participants by U of T Scarborough principal Franco Vaccarino and Mary Anne Chambers. Other speakers included Tom Nowers, dean of student affairs, and Cedarbrae High School guidance counsellor Kurt Lewin.

“I’m a big believer in the transformative power of mentorship,” said Vaccarino. “A mentor is described as an experienced and trusted advisor or guide. I still have mentors to this day that I call on for advice and counsel.”

Chambers said she was motivated to make the gift while serving in the provincial cabinet as Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. A few years earlier, she met the principal of a senior public school whose Grade 7 and 8 students were smart enough to compete successfully against some of the best schools in Toronto, but many of their families were living below the poverty line or just scraping by financially.

“This principal said most of his students would not complete high school and very few if any would pursue postsecondary education,” Chambers said. “It broke his heart, because some of these students had dreams of becoming scientists and physicians. I believe that for young people whose lives and futures are constrained by very challenging financial circumstances, a post-secondary education can be their door to opportunity.”

As minister, a member of the Task Force on Student Financial Support and a former member of U of T’s Governing Council, Chambers helped the provincial government to introduce tuition grants and aid improvements, which she said led to a policy whereby “no student will be unable to study because of inadequate financial resources.” She said she also funded the IMP because she believes in the enriching power of mentorship.

“Mentors are very special people who can have an incredibly powerful impact on the lives they touch,” said Chambers. “They help to make dreams come true.”

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