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Paving a Path to Persistence

12/28/2018 9:20 am

Dr. Karen Walker and Stephen Taylor

Paving a Path to Persistence

Dec 28, 2018 | Catalyst

Stephen Taylor is in his junior year and majoring in Sport Management. Looking to the future, he says it’s pretty simple, “I want to be able to take care of my family. If I have kids someday, I want to be an example for them, and to have the money and resources to pay for them to go to college, too.” It’s an important point for this first-generation student, the first male in his family to go to college, and for whom this accomplishment came dangerously close to not happening at all.

Stephen will tell you there was a period during his first year at Rockford where he believed that his college reality would be like that of so many other young men he knew — failure. Overwhelmed and faced with an academic dismissal, he found himself struggling with virtually every aspect of college life. He was ready to accept that he was done and walk away, but then, Dr. Karen Walker literally came knocking at his door and Stephen’s reality began to change.

At the time, Dr. Walker was heading up the Office of Student Success and Retention. She was there to personally assist students in any way she and the University could to help them persist to graduation. She knew first-hand, and further supported by dismal state and national statistics, that minority males struggled the most. Dr. Walker was determined to reverse this trend at Rockford and found additional valuable support through the Associated Colleges of Illinois (ACI), a statewide collaborative of 26 smaller, independent liberal arts-based colleges and universities that has made increasing college graduation rates among low-income, first-generation college students and students of color a top priority.

Dr. Walker spent a year putting additional structure and resources to her efforts, but she knew more was needed. She then applied to ACI’s Peer Mentoring Program, which supports students who arrive at ACI-member institutions with risk factors that could prevent them from staying in school and reaching graduation. To counter those risks – from financial and educational inequities to lack of family experience with higher education – the ACI grant supports programming that matches at risk students with trained peer mentors who have faced similar challenges.

Stephen was one of the first to become involved in the program, admittedly due to Dr. Walker’s unrelenting influence. She believed in him, and slowly, Stephen began to understand that he too, could believe in himself. She helped him file a petition to re-enroll and supported him with her personal recommendation to return to his studies. Stephen went from being a mentee to serving as a dedicated mentor, providing a genuine example of what it means to truly persist.

Rockford University is in its second year of participation in ACI’s Peer Mentoring program, along with 10 other ACI-member institutions in Illinois. It’s making a notable difference in the lives of RU students. Stephen and seven of his fellow peers were recently asked to share their stories. Stephen, Thery Simms, Tyree Ahrens, Ajibola Oke-Diran, Christopher Honnou, Jeremiah Camphor, and Jesus Campos all sat down in front of the camera with Leslie Millenson, Director of Special Projects for ACI, and eloquently and honestly told their stories. Each unscripted interview revealed a recurring commonality of how having no study habits, poor self-discipline, a lack of positive role-models and financial pressures began to derail their ability to succeed. Many were reluctant when they were first approached to participate in the mentoring program. Dr. Walker and her small original group of students who she had so directly influenced were diligent in seeking out those students most at risk. Recruits soon began to understand the importance and value gained from a peer who had been there. With a growing arsenal of tools at their disposal, this impressive group of young men also learned that they were ultimately the best advocates for their own accountability. A common theme echoed by several Minority Male Mentoring students is that they simply didn’t have the foundation to know how to succeed. One by one, those obstacles to success are being removed.

Above: Mentors AJ Oke-Diran graduated in May and is now attending graduate school to earn his MBA; Jesus Campos (also featured on the Catalyst cover) is an active and visible presence on campus and served along with Stehpen (pictured below at right) as Welcome Week leaders.