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Mentor

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Bellone meets students and their mentors at Stony Brook University. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Mentors are making a new mark on Stony Brook University thanks to a county program.

Working alongside Mentor New York, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) rolled out the county’s newest mentoring program at Stony Brook University’s Center for Molecular Medicine on Jan. 29. In the company of students and staff, Bellone said the county kicked off the mentoring program to help area newcomers navigate their way through county politics and education.

While the program is in its early stages, its public announcement came in light of National Mentoring Month in January. Bellone met with six students, mentors, and faculty on Friday to also discuss the importance of mentors for the young adults majoring in science related fields.

“The benefits of [mentoring] are absolutely amazing,” Bellone said during the meeting. “From a better academic performance, better economic prospects, better statistics … the list goes on and on.”

Mentors were key to the success of Michelle Olakkengil, a junior at Stony Brook who said she discovered her passions with a mentor’s help. Olakkengil shifted from conducting research in obstetrics and gynecology to pursuing her passion for public speaking by working hand-in-hand with a more experienced peer.

“Having these mentors can really boost a student’s personal development,” Olakkengil said. “I was able to find out more about myself.”

She is currently applying for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, which supports graduates and the development of students like Olakkengil, who are committed to public service leadership through mentoring.

While sophomore Amna Haider is more science-minded, she said her mentors helped her tackle different machinery and tools that helped her to better understand engineering. She said that applying past knowledge was key for her area of study and that lesson was only learned via mentorship.

For 32-year-old Daniel Irizarry, the university’s mentorship program hit home.

Irizarry left his family business in construction to attend Stony Brook University and will pursue his doctorate in genetics after he graduates this summer. But he said the reality of leaving a family-run business made it more stressful to adapt to life as a student.

“If it hadn’t been for the mentorship, I don’t think I’d be able to succeed,” said Irizarry about his mentor Jennie Williams. “It can be pretty difficult navigating these kinds of things, especially when you have a family.”

The mentorship program at the university is an example of what Bellone said he hopes to do in his office in the coming months. According to Maureen Lagarde, special events and donor management specialist at Mentor New York, Bellone’s office contacted her organization with hopes of finding ways to participate in January’s mentoring awareness month.

She added that Bellone’s initiative sets “an example for other government departments and businesses alike.” Currently, Mentor New York is helping around 57,000 youths with its more than 400 programs. Organizations or individuals can contact Mentor New York to either create a mentoring program or to find a program that best suits their needs.

“When you’re growing up, you don’t want to listen to adults,” Bellone said. “[But] to get where you want to be [you have] to talk to people who’ve been down that road before. That’s why this [mentorship program] is so wonderful.”

Bilingual Buddies mentors students in the Bridge program at Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School. Photo from Sabrina Palacios

By Sabrina Palacios

To this day, I can still remember my first experience with mentoring. I was in kindergarten, and just like all of the other kids, I was brimming with excitement to meet my new buddy. The moment all the “big kids” walked in was indescribable. I was overcome with joy, from having the opportunity to meet kids much older than me, but also still a bit fraught with shyness because, well, these kids were “big kids”! Once I got over that fact, I was able to really form a friendship with my new mentor. Every week she visited me, and over time she helped teach me the values of responsibility as well as staying dedicated to my schoolwork. Even now, I still use those lessons in my every day life, and I can easily say that a great part of that can be attributed to having such a positive role model in my life at such a developmental stage.

At its most basic level, mentoring helps because it guarantees a young person someone to look up to and learn from. A child is not alone in dealing with day-to-day challenges. By participating in a mentoring program at Huntington, Bridge class students — those who are new to the country and sometimes to even a formal school system — now have the opportunity to feel included in their school community as well as be understood by their fellow classmates.

Sabrina Palacios photo from the author
Sabrina Palacios photo from the author

Our mentoring program, Bilingual Buddies, has become the key for gradually integrating these students in the most natural way possible, while also building their relationships with those around them. As for the mentors, we have equally benefited from the program because we are given the chance to learn about cultures and backgrounds contrasting to those that we have always known. Additionally, mentoring has given each individual a role in becoming strong role models, hence giving us a sense of responsibility and respectability that we must learn to uphold.

In its early stages, Bilingual Buddies has become a blossoming mentoring program. I, along with 24 of my peers, have helped take part in developing a partnership with the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School Bridge class with the goal to better acclimate the students to their new lives and future as students of Huntington.

The very first day we walked in to meet the kids was nothing short of delightful. Seeing each child’s face light up with happiness was quite honestly the most gratifying moment I’ve ever had both as an individual and a mentor. And I can undoubtedly say that my peers felt the same. Being a part of such a rewarding program has given us, and the students, the chance to create lasting, positive friendships. Even more so, it has given us the opportunity to be the true bridge between these new students and their community.

It can go without saying that while it is our job as mentors to leave an impact on the lives of these children, it is truly the children themselves who will impact us and our community. Hopefully we will be able to see more of this growth and positive change as the program develops from where it is today.

Sabrina Palacios is a rising senior at Huntington High School, and the founder and president of Bilingual Buddies.