U.Va. Students Find Mentoring a Two-Way Street

This story launches UVA Today's occasional series this semester on the work of undergraduates, graduate student mentors and faculty advisers participating in Jefferson Public Citizens service projects. The 2009-10 academic year marks the first year of the JPC program. There are 16 projects in all, 12 faculty advisers, nine graduate student mentors and 71 undergraduate participants. The program was identified as a University priority by the Commission for the Future of the University and approved by the Board of Visitors in October 2008.

January 29, 2010 — Kevin Pujanauski knew he wanted to give something back to the community. That's why he stepped in to sustain a mentorship program at the Red Hill Elementary School in southern Albemarle County.

But what Pujanauski, a second-year University of Virginia student from Alexandria, didn't realize was how much he would gain from the experience.

"It's allowed me to see a different part of Charlottesville," he said. "It's a beautiful place, but it's also, socio-economically, a different place."

The Cavs/Panthers Mentorship Program was launched last year by Curry School of Education graduates Mary Mays and Mary Dobmeier, two teachers then new to Red Hill who wanted to partner with U.Va. to provide mentors for their pupils. The teachers initially collaborated with volunteers from a variety of University organizations, primarily the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, the University Democrats and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

This year, a new team of students stepped up the University's involvement in the mentorship program through Jefferson Public Citizens, a year-old initiative that integrates research and service into students' academic experience at the University. The JPC involvement allowed the five-member organizing team to nearly double the number of U.Va. mentors, from 11 to 20, and to offer enrichment activities.

The program now reaches about 25 pupils in the third through fifth grades at Red Hill. Teachers nominate children who are likely to benefit from extra help, whether for academic, social or family reasons.

The program's goal is to improve pupils' academic skills and open their eyes to the possibilities of higher education, said Mays, who teaches fifth grade.

The group meets Wednesdays for one-on-one tutoring and mentoring, plus every other Friday for field trips or enrichment activities. During alternate weeks, the group holds discussions about character traits and strategies that can lead to success.

This year's list of scheduled field trips includes apple picking on Carter's Mountain, a visit to the University's Grounds, hiking on Humpback Rock and a tour of Monticello. Planned enrichment activities at the school include a performance by the Cavalier Marching Band drum line, a poetry slam, visits by U.Va. student-athletes and a Brainiac field day.

In addition to Pujanauski, the team leader, the other JPC team members are: Max Gruenther, a second-year College of Arts & Sciences student from Winchester who arranges the group's field trips; Anna Kushner, a second-year College student from Aylett who conducts mentor training and arranges the in-school enrichment activities; Megan Gutierrez, a third-year pre-med student from Ramsey, N.J., who is handling the research component of the project, including securing approval for the project from the University's Institutional Review Board; and Zach Manis, from West Columbia, S.C., a second-year MBA student at the Darden School of Business who is handling the project's budget. Eleanor Wilson, an associate professor in the Curry School, is the team's faculty adviser.

The other Red Hill teachers involved with the program are Amanda Stanec, a physical education teacher who plans character trait dialogues, team-building exercises and physical activities in the gym; Laurel Gillette, a third-grade teacher and general supervisor of the program; Tina Bolen, a fourth-grade teacher who helps coordinate field trips and bus transportation; and Shane Dillon, a teacher assistant, who helps supervise the U.Va. tutors.

Many of the Red Hill children who participated in the program last year enrolled again this year. The reviews from their parents and guardians were glowing.

The parent of one 9-year-old who worked with Pujanauski last year wrote, "[Name withheld] walked away from meeting Kevin with many life lessons learned and realizing that people of all ages have a lot in common. I would LOVE for him to have the chance to be mentored once again this year!"

Added the parent of a 10-year-old, "I noticed an improvement in [Name withheld's] attitude toward his academic responsibilities when he was part of Cavs and Panthers. I believe that continuing to be a part of this would help him to build better habits in school for future classes. … Last year was very beneficial!"

Pujanauski also has seen firsthand the impact of his time spent with the children. One boy learned that hard work over time can pay off, Pujanauski said. The boy's self-confidence also grew and he is now willing to tackle difficult tasks that he previously was unwilling to try.

The program serves an important role in introducing Red Hill children to college students who grew up elsewhere and worked hard in school, always expecting to continue their education, said Mays.

"Expectations matter," she said.

The demographics of the rural Red Hill school district run the gamut from children whose parents are both professionals to children whose parents are both unemployed.

"For some of these kids, their teacher is the only person they know who went to college," she said. "I don't want them shutting doors at 10 years old. I want them to know that college is an option."

She believes that tutoring from college students at one of the best universities in the country can help them take firm steps down that path. But apart from giving back to the community, what do U.Va. students get out of the experience?

"U.Va. is a pressure cooker," Pujanauski said. "Kids have a different perspective. Every week, we come down here and spend a few refreshing hours with these kids. It's personally rewarding and fun."

The Red Hill project was originally slated to run through the 2009-10 academic year, but recently won funding for 2010-11 as well. The JPC program grant of $4,500 to Cavs/Panthers provided small stipends for student team members and the faculty adviser, but most of the money has gone to cover the cost of school buses to take the children on field trips.

Pujanauski believes the money is well spent.

"Some of these kids have never been to a movie theater; they've never been to a museum. They've never been to U.Va.," he said. "These kids just live 15 minutes down the road and those 15 minutes have been keeping them from all the resources at U.Va. For a little bit of money, we can drive down there or bring them up here. We can change their lives."

— By Charlotte Crystal