By Grace Smith
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
This oft-quoted adage from computing pioneer Alan Kay is printed on the business card of Santa Monica College philosophy major Walther Perez. The statement is not just a reflection of his personal attitude. It’s the message he conveys as a mentor to 7th grade students at John Adams Middle School.
Perez is one of 14 male SMC students mentoring 24 boys who are JAMS students — many of them high achievers facing various challenges — as part of the Brother-to-Brother program, a mentoring program that, along with its Sister-to-Sister counterpart, pairs SMC students in the College’s Black Collegians and Adelante academic and student success programs with JAMS students. Brother-to-Brother was launched in fall 2015, and Sister-to-Sister followed this spring.
The concept is simple but powerful: As mentors, SMC students whose road to college has been full of obstacles — and who are often the first in their family to go to college — can inspire their younger counterparts to pursue higher education, as well as offer them real-world practical advice, and help them plan their own path to college. The driving force behind these programs can be summed up in one sentence: If we can do it, so can you.
“Research shows that early intervention can have a major impact on student success,” SMC Superintendent Kathryn E. Jeffery said. “As our students serve as role models, they also become stronger role models themselves. It’s a pathway toward success for all our students, and we are excited to collaborate on this important effort between SMC and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.”
SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon shares Jeffery’s enthusiasm.
“This is a great example of our ongoing successful partnership with SMC, and our mutual goal of providing opportunities and support for all students,” said Lyon. “There is tremendous value for our students in making these connections in middle school to help crystalize their goals and lay the foundation for a successful pathway to college and beyond.”
The SMC mentors meet with their JAMS mentees every other week for group activities, exercises to build social skills and develop self-confidence, and individual conversations. Meetings alternate between the JAMS campus and SMC’s main campus, which are across the street from each other, to help the 7th graders become familiar with the SMC campus and feel comfortable in a college environment.
“When I was hired, I was asked to work toward improving the retention and graduation rates of men of color, specifically Latinos and African Americans,” said SMC counselor Paul Jimenez, who coordinates the mentoring program along with his counterpart, JAMS Assistant Principal Yusuf Allahjah. “It is proven by research that if individuals see themselves as mentors, they are more accountable.”
Paying it forward
Perez, a first-generation college student, says he did not have any guidance at his South Central Los Angeles middle school. “I was surrounded by a lot of negativity, and the idea of going to college wasn’t really ‘cool’ around there.”
At SMC, Perez says, he was not “the best student” to begin with. But when he was accepted into the Undergraduate Research Scholar Academy, it changed his life. URSA is a 10-day residency program designed by SMC for high-achieving, underrepresented students and held at Loyola Marymount University to improve their research skills and help them navigate the transfer process.
“I found myself surrounded by mentors who pushed me to focus on my academic goals,” said Perez. “As a first-generation college student, up until that point I didn’t really have the kind of information you would get from a parent or someone else who’s been to college, like how to apply for financial aid, scholarships, how to write a personal statement.”
So when Jimenez asked Perez if he would consider joining Brother-to-Brother, Perez thought it would be “a good way to pay my dues and share what I’ve learned, so others will be more prepared for college than I was.” Perez hopes to transfer to LMU and earn a law degree, and wants to continue working with Brother-to-Brother.
The Sister-to-Sister program works the same way as Brother-to-Brother, teaming up female SMC students with girls in the 7th grade at JAMS. Sister-to-Sister is a new program but already has 17 SMC students mentoring 22 JAMS students.
“Our goal is to expose our students to, and demystify college,” said JAMS Community Liaison Donna McCoy, who leads the program with help from her SMC counterparts. “We want to inspire them to attend college by putting them in personal contact with college students.”
JAMS student Amiri Fatari-Daniels, a 7th grader, wants to attend Harvard University and work in obstetrics and gynecology. She likes her SMC mentor, Aljzan Hobdy-Clayton, because they are both “smart and creative.” Fatari-Daniels says her role models include her mentor, mother and sister.
“I’m lucky, because some students may not be able to talk to their moms like I can to mine,” she says. “Sister-to-Sister gives them-and me-someone close to their age to talk to.”
Making a difference
“Mentoring is underrated, but it can be the difference between a student being motivated to get a doctorate, or not having any goals,” said Perez. “That’s probably the biggest thing I like about being a mentor: knowing the difference I’m making. We’re going to make school cool again.”