Feeding the hunger of college dreams

3/4/2008 | By: Sue Putnam  |

“I just want to share,” said Barbara Fox, a University music instructor, after meeting musically inclined Hug High School student Trey Von Wrights Feb. 27 at the match-up for All Students College Educated in Nevada Today (ASCENT).

The ASCENT program at the Reno school pairs successful members of the community with high school sophomores to help students reach their goal of attending the University.

“So many of these students come from single-parent families and they may be the very first in the family to go to college,” Fox, the mother of two grown children, noted. “We can show them a lot of opportunities for scholarships and ways that can make it easier to succeed at the University.”

A growing effort

More than 140 mentors and mentees met for the first time at the school this week.

Program coordinators try to place students with mentors who have similar interests, so Fox soon found herself talking with Von Wrights, whose mother performed with pop singer Mac Davis and whose grandmother was in a rock band. When Von Wrights told Fox he’d be singing at a local church on Sunday, she promptly marked the time and place on their meeting calendar and said she’d love to attend.

“These are some of the most phenomenal kids I've ever worked with,” Hug principal Andy Kelly said to the crowd in the school's cafeteria. “They have dreams, desires and passions for their futures, and we need mentors to guide them through this process.”

Kelly introduced the inaugural ASCENT program, based on a model started by the Gates Foundation in Seattle, to northern Nevada last year and the partnership between his school and the University produced 160 pairs of mentors/mentees. Mentors are introduced to the sophomores and asked to provide them with resources and knowledge that can help them pursue their dreams of attending the University. After completing the three-year program, many of the students will be the first in their families to attend a university.

“The ASCENT mentor program has put a face to higher education,” Hug dean and event coordinator Courtney Klaich said. “Over the last year and a half, many of the mentor relationships have evolved into friendships. Students have become well versed in the college application process and the importance of higher education as a key to making their dreams of financial independence come true.”

A call to action

Many of the mentors said they were called to action by an e-mail University President Milt Glick sent to faculty and staff. Mentors are asked to commit one to three hours monthly with their mentees to “motivate, guide and inform.”

At one table, Keith Hackett, associate athletic director for the University, discussed the list of conversation topics with his mentee, Kalani Tuiono.

“I want to be a fireman,” Tuiono said. “I’m going to volunteer at a fire station, and I know there are classes that will help with that.”

Marsha Dupree, assistant director of the University’s McNair Scholarship Program, listened quietly as her mentee spoke of some family challenges and the feeling that she has a lot to prove. Jessica Bartolini, a coordinator in development and alumni relations on campus, was thrilled with her mentee match.

“We both like to cook and she wants to go to culinary school,” Bartolini said. “She has a 4.0 grade average and a great attitude as well.”

Playing to role of college coach

Don Helmstetter, a recently retired small business owner, and his wife have been ASCENT mentors for a year. And although he’s found the program an amazing experience, he cautions new mentors that it’s certainly not always easy.

“At this moment, with the student being a junior, he sees the future as taking too long and he has a lot of trouble seeing the benefits when he wants short-term payoffs,” Helmstetter said. “He is still working toward college, yet with some trepidation. As his mentor, I have to stay alert to signals that he is giving up and avert that conclusion with positive statements that are meaningful to him. The relationship shows me that I am making a difference and that, so far, he is remaining on track toward college.”

Principal Kelly is well aware of the challenges students face. But he’s also optimistic about the heart the kids in the program are showing.

“When they’re surveyed in middle school, 98 percent of these students in the Hug High zone say they want to go to college,” Kelly said. “Somewhere in the system, we’re failing them. That’s why we need this program and as many mentors as we can possibly have to help.”


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