Where Are The Mentors For Rural Kids?

I was reading this article about the lack of representation of rural students in college attendance. [www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/02/15/581895659/whos-missing-from-america-s-colleges-rural-high-school-graduates ] There are always obstacles to college attendance. Rural areas contend with drug and mental-health issues, poverty and a lack of high-speed access to the Internet, for instance. Some remote areas can’t attract enough teachers to offer college-preparatory classes. In spite of this, rural students score better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than urban students, and graduate from high school at a higher percentage than the national average.

Besides these obstacles, another key factor cited was the lack of role models that rural youth have. To succeed in college, the student must be academically prepared and have access to financial resources. Success is also dependent on a support network and self motivation.  As Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative states: “Because we don’t have a diverse set of vocations kids can look at or try on or have an example of someone in their community that they aspire to be like, they’re kind of pushed into a position of, ‘I have a choice of becoming a coal miner or working in retail or health care,’ ” says Jeff Hawkins. “They can see a coal miner or a cashier, but they rarely, if anywhere except on television, encounter lawyers or doctors or astrophysicists.” Imagine what it must be like to build a boat if you’ve never seen the water. How can you train to be a financial analyst if you don’t know any or never met one?

Students need help to imagine a future they’ve never known.

When I was living in Indianapolis, I was a mentor with the Starfish Initiative [http://www.starfishinitiative.org]. The organization paired career adults with high school students who had academic potential, but lacked economic resources. The program tried to address the problem of why such students who made it into college failed to graduate. They hoped to fill in the gaps that the student’s peers and parents couldn’t. Namely – what does it look like to live away from home and suddenly have academic classes that are more challenging than high school? How do you plan a week or more in advance for anything when your family is trying to see if they can pay for internet this month or the phone bill, but not both? How are you supposed to know what college or a professional career look like if no one in your generation has gone to college and your parents probably didn’t finish high school? Part of the answer is you pair them with someone who has gone down that path and can guide them through some of the obstacles in a one-one relationship.

There were multiple programs for mentoring in Indianapolis. The Starfish Initiative was especially focused on college placement and guidance. Big Brothers Big Sisters is another organization that provides mentoring to youth in many urban areas. As I travelled across the country on my bike ride in 2016, I tried to engage as many mentoring organizations as I could to highlight their work. The needs are everywhere and there seem to be organizations in the cities. How about the rural areas? There doesn’t have to be a formal organization. It only takes an individual to step up and reach out to someone who could use the help. I would challenge any one to talk to the counselor at the local high school and I bet you could find several candidates that could benefit from a mentor that could guide a student to new possibilities.

Coal Miner or Aeronautical Engineer should be a choice.

The future for the student doesn’t have to be college, but it should be a choice, not a circumstance.

The Lone Rider