A New School education provides countless opportunities—urban farming, study abroad, internships—to break down boundaries separating the classroom from the “real world.” This fall, more than a dozen undergraduates from across the university found an entirely new way to put this philosophy into action, earning course credit as student mentors in New York City public housing projects.
The students, from Eugene Lang The New School for Liberal Arts, Parsons The New School for Design, and The New School for Public Engagement, were all part of the class Youth Mentoring in the City. Under the direction of Judy Mejia, Lang director in The New School’s Office of Civic Engagement and Social Justice, New School students are spending the 2012–2013 academic year mentoring young people at local Cornerstone Centers—activity hubs in public housing facilities throughout the five boroughs. Their work brings together classroom learning with on-site mentoring to support the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development mentoring program.
What is mentoring? The students themselves often weren’t sure. Does it mean going to get pizza together? Baking cookies? Talking about family or school? Or practicing kickboxing (an activity tried by one mentor)?
Answering those questions turned out to be central to at the mentors’ experience. They searched for authentic ways to connect with their mentees, who were often just a few years younger. Their class blog chronicles their efforts to find their footing and figure out how to be mentors on the fly.
“I wonder what kind of influence I will be to them,” Lang student Leonie Thebez wrote. “I just hope I can be wise and sensitive enough when approaching them.”
“It means a lot to me that they remember what we do together,” wrote Ashley Wu, a Parsons student. “I’m hoping there are more opportunities for me to tell them that they’re beautiful, because I know that can mean a lot to a young girl.”
The course isn’t just an important milestone for the students and their mentees. It is also the first-ever higher-education partnership undertaken by the City of New York’s Cornerstone Mentoring Program. Serving more than 300 New York City children in grades 5–9, the program is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $127 million Young Men’s Initiative, which is designed to help young black and Latino men deal with the challenges they face. Lang has a long history of partnering with organizations that support New York City youth. The Cornerstone mentoring partnership is just the latest of many collaborations, which include work with the I Have a Dream Foundation, Institute for Urban Education, and Ruane Literacy Program.
“I am confident that this course will show real long-term benefits, not only for the young mentees, but for the mentors as well,” said Jeanne B. Mullgrav, DYCD Commissioner. “They are building skills and competencies to become the next generation of compassionate and committed leaders our City needs.”
“We thought long and hard about how we would engage New School students with the youth in the mentoring program,” said Meija. “This course models best practices in community-based learning. It meets the needs of the community partner, integrates critical and reflective pedagogies through course assignments and fieldwork, and honors community expertise by bringing in the community partner as a co-instructor of the course. In sum, it’s in keeping with the commitment to community engagement and social justice that our students expect from The New School.”
Commitment is the operative word. The New School students will continue mentoring in the Cornerstone centers through the spring semester and will launch a newly created public service project in April. “I am starting to become more emotionally invested in these kids and this center,” wrote another mentor, NSPE’s Isa Wong. “I now see how easy it is to make a difference in a kid’s life. They just want you to be there—that’s it. It’s such a simple thing. Everyone who has the time to be a mentor should be one.”