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Sunshine Mentorship Initiative pairs undergrad, high school students

By Kristina Kenney
University News Service
April 26, 2012

It is impossible for a flower to blossom without a bit of sunshine.

Rubén Garza is sure to agree with this sentiment. The associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and secondary undergraduate coordinator at Texas State University-San Marcos started the Sunshine Mentorship Initiative in the fall 2009 in order to provide tutoring and mentoring to high school freshmen students who require extra academic scaffolding, as well as one-on-one teaching experience for undergraduate students working toward an education degree.

The undergraduate mentors, to whom Garza refers to as “Sunshines,” are students enrolled in Garza’s curriculum and instruction high school block course. The mentoring initiative grew from an informal 15-minute session during its initial phase to currently more structured one-hour sessions twice a week with the students.

“My goal in doing this is to give my students the authentic experience of working with a student who needs individualized help,” says Garza. “It also provides for them a more realistic perspective of a type of student they’re going to encounter in their own classroom.”

Garza also points out that participation in a mentoring program is invaluable experience for pre-service teachers because it provides them with an opportunity to gain practical experience while learning to apply their classroom instruction. Working with academically challenged youth helps his students realize their potential and acknowledge their own strengths as aspiring educators.

Michelle Stav is a senior English major and mentor to Vincent Gonzales, a high school freshman at Hays High School, and she agrees that the experience offers a hands-on learning opportunity. While Gonzales says math is his favorite subject, Stav has been able to provide him with additional assistance in English and reading where he says he needs extra help.

“You can sit in a classroom all day and talk about strategies but during the periods we’re with our mentees we get to actually be with a student and test those theories,” says Stav.

There are currently 24 undergraduate students serving as mentors, and they join more than 120 Sunshines who have taken Garza’s course since the program’s inception. The initiative has also included more than 180 high school freshmen mentees during its six-semester run.

The high school freshmen students are tutored in any academic subject that they require extra help, whether it is through a homework assignment or through preparation for the state assessment tests that are administered at the conclusion of the school year. Stav says the biggest challenge she has faced has been getting Gonzales motivated to do his work and keeping him on task, but that she has noticed a steady improvement in his reading throughout the semester.

“Many of my students, unless they have experienced academic difficulty, they don’t know what it’s like for the high school students in that situation,” says Garza. “So they get to know the student more in-depth. Many times teachers automatically assume that students don’t care, but getting to know the student well enough can make a difference. These interactions help some of my students to adjust their personal lenses about the adolescents.”

Stav views the overall experience as a serious wake up call for her. The opportunity to mentor a student who needs additional help lets her recognize the realities about the types of students she will teach in her own classroom one day.

“It’s a reminder that we are going to have these kids in the classroom and they’re not going to be picked out for us,” she says. “We’re just going to come across them as we’re grading papers. We have to just encounter it and find ways to help them.”