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Mentoring helps GED students on path to success

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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the August/September edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Neil Wingfield rarely shared that he was a GED student. It’s not something he was proud of, he admits.

“I’ve always felt like there’s a stigma attached to having a GED and people thinking it’s not the same as graduating from high school,” Wingfield, 35, says. “I typically would never share that with anybody because I didn’t want to be looked at as ‘less than.’”

But the college student now has a different outlook on his GED, thanks in large part to Pathways to Persistence, a new program at Santa Fe College (SFC) in Florida. The program, launched last fall, aims to help first-time college students who have completed a GED succeed academically and emotionally in college.

There’s a need for such a program, says founder Angela Long. Long’s research shows that 55 percent of students who have completed a GED and enroll in community college drop out their first year, and lack of support largely contributes to that number.

“There’s a mentality in all of these students that I’ve met, where every single one of them faces some sort of hardship or a lack of confidence in who they are,” says Long, who oversees a variety of student life activities in concurrence with her role as coordinator of student leadership and activities.

The right match

Pathways offers support through hand-picked mentors—Long chooses a match based on initial scholar interviews—who range from professors to administrators or other college staff, plus a crew of volunteer peers from college organizations for tutoring assistance. The program, which grew out of a data analysis project on GED students, promotes academic excellence while creating a familial community among participants and helping them ascend into employment leadership opportunities.

“The goal is to make GED students feel so special that they have an impact on the country and to give them a voice to tell us what is working in education, what has failed them, and how we can make it better,” Long says. “They feel like they’ve been treated poorly or looked down upon their whole lives, and now they feel like leaders.”

The effects of the program resonate beyond the first year of college, with the ideal goal of creating a sustained connection among mentors and mentees of support and friendship. The initial group last fall contained more than 30 scholars; about 20 students were selected for spring 2012. More than half of that initial class earned a 3.0 GPA or higher.

Mentors meet with assigned mentees at least once a week the first month of the program, and every other week thereafter, following assigned topics that include how to pick classes and talk about financial assistance. Mentees also attend a weekly 3-credit course in the fall semester and attend leadership seminars and luncheons with key SFC members.

Wingfield says the program has made a monumental difference in his life. He plans to take his 3.9 GPA and apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for engineering and has since switched his degree from an associate degree to an associate of science degree.

“I wouldn’t be applying to the No. 1 engineering school in the country if it wasn’t for Pathways,” he says. “I’ll share my story with anybody who wants to hear it if it helps them go back to school and become a successful person.”