Volume 20, Number 37 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 25 - September 1- 7, 2010

Melissa Peralta hugs “Otto the Orange,” Syracuse University’s iconic mascot.

Mentors help students break the trend and ditch the city

BY John Bayles

Melissa Peralta thought about college when she was in high school, but knew it wasn’t within her reach. She figured she would end up like most of the kids she knew: working, staying at home until the right guy came along.

Turns out, these days Peralta is hanging out with “Otto the Orange” and looking forward to basketball season. And for good reason, she’s starting class at the basketball-crazy Syracuse University this fall. And had it not been for her mentor, chances are she would still be in Lower Manhattan.

”I’m Dominican and traditionally we stay at home until we get married,” said Peralta. “My grandfather was like, ‘What? She’s going away?’”

The main goal of the Syracuse University Mentor Mentee Alliance program is to ensure high school students have the opportunity and means to attend college. The Leadership and Public Service High School has a direct line to the program since its founder, Donald Schupak, is a Syracuse alum and since 1993 other Syracuse alumni have been mentoring students at the school. Part of the SUMMA program, the Friends of the Leadership and Public Service High School pairs sophomores, juniors and seniors with Syracuse graduates that work and live in the city. While the goal is to simply get the students to attend any college or university, the program targets students who would usually choose to stay close to home and have them consider going away to school.

“Most of our students are first generation Americans, said assistant principal Ted Bronsnick. “They come from homes where the language spoken is not English, whether it’s Spanish or Chinese, and they’re probably the first in their family to go to college.”

Not only is Peralta the first in her family to go to college, she’s the first to graduate high school.

Corey Karsch was Peralta’s mentor for two years. In addition to working for American Express, she is also the director of SUMMA. She had been in the program for three years when she was asked to serve on the Friends’ board and then eventually to head the program.

Karsch has spent most of her summer recruiting new mentors for the upcoming school year. The Friends target Syracuse grads who have been out of college for at least three years, live in the city and are in their 20s or 30s. They have to take a mentoring class sponsored by the city’s Department of Education and they have to show a commitment to the program. Usually a mentor will stay with their mentee for two or three years.

“If they’re just looking to volunteer, we would never turn them away,” said Karsch. “We really want to make sure they’re a great match for the students.”

Karsch was also quick to point out that volunteering is not completely altruistic.

“You volunteer to do something good for others then end up benefiting yourself,” said Karsch. “You get a lot of the benefit back. You find satisfaction in your life that you might not be getting in your job.”

Karsch and Peralta hit it off from day one. On top of helping her with academics, Karsch also introduced Peralta to a world outside the one she was used to.

“She took me to a Greek restaurant once,” said Peralta. “I had never had Greek food before in my life. I loved it.”

The biggest role of the mentor however is making sure the students know what’s available to them in terms of higher education. Peralta said she always wanted to go to college and just assumed it would be here in the city due to financial reasons. But Karsch told her about the excellent financial aid package at Syracuse.

Peralta visited Syracuse on a school trip during her junior year. Karsch couldn’t go with her, but as she sat in her office she received an email from her mentee.

“She sent me a picture of her smiling, standing by the Syracuse sign on campus,” said Karsch. “It had like five exclamation points. I just started crying. Words cannot describe how happy I was.”

Karsch and the other mentors in the program try very hard to make sure the students explore their options. Karsch said the City and Stte colleges are very good, but added that for a lot of students, going away to college is about more than just the academic experience and can be a vehicle for kids to see different parts of the country and meet different people.

She had one particular mentee who was incredibly bright and had numerous options in terms of scholarships to different schools. Karsch suggested she look into the university her mother attended.

“I told her to think about Temple University,” said Karsch. “She had never even heard of Temple.”

So Karsch took her mentee to Philadelphia and now, as a junior, she’s a full-fledged Temple Owl.

Peralta said the visit to Syracuse sealed the deal. She said she immediately felt comfortable; so comfortable she decided to attend Syracuse’s “Summer Start’ program and actually moved into a dorm at the beginning of the summer and racked up seven credits. She said that decision definitely put her in a better position for the fall.

And her relationship with kirsch did not stop when she went away to school.

“There were some times in the summer when I definitely had a freak out moment,” said Peralta. “But she was there for me then and she still is today.”

Indeed, Karsch said she keeps close tabs on Peralta these days, mainly through Facebook. The mentors and mentees are not allowed to be friends on Facebook until the mentee graduates.

“She send me a Facebook message that says ‘I just pulled an all-nighter, studying’,” said Karsch, “and I’m like, ‘yeah, way to go!’”

Relationship building is another main focus of the program.

“Every relationship is different, we want them to meet at least four hours a month in person and we like them to keep in contact at least once a week via email or phone,” said Karsch.

“A lot of the students are concerned about the finances,” said assistant principal Bronsnick. “But they really do want to go away to college. Building these relationships can help smooth the transition.”

Peralta admitted her mother was disappointed when she told he she would be moving away.

“She was definitely upset,” said Peralta. ‘But it’s my dream. My mom understands.”

 

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