All of us who are associated with the Give Something Back Foundation have many things in common. We are older, confident, appreciative, and accomplished. We have a worldview that allows us to analyze the past and project the future. We have a pretty good sense of what is important for people to learn as they grow up. We have seen what changes lives, starting with our own, and we want to help.
This past week, I had the joy of talking with my first mentee about starting a 529 plan for his daughter, and having dinner with my second mentee one day after work.
My first mentee and I had almost nothing in common when we met. I was from Philadelphia’s Main Line. My family grew up summering in the Hamptons with my grandparents. My parents had both attended college at least for a few years. My dad had a good job; my mom was able to stay home and care for us. I went to an excellent high school that was well funded. We were all healthy. I am white.
My mentee lived in one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia, very close to Third and Indiana — an area Steve Lopez wrote about in his novel about living in the dangerous gang-controlled streets of Philadelphia’s Badlands section. His father was a disabled window washer who did not speak any English. His mother spoke for the two of them. His parents had immigrated to the United States. His brother was autistic and in grade school; his sister was an unwed mother who had dropped out of high school.
We met when he was in 10th grade and I was a partner in a prestigious Philadelphia law firm. I remember our first few meetings. I am not sure Jose spoke more than 20 words in the two hours we were together. His answers to my questions were most often single words. We did lots of walking; it was easier to talk without looking at each other. We talked a lot about what was next, and how to get there. At first, all he did was listen; it took him a while to open up and share. I visited his school, met his teachers and watched him compete in sports. I took him to my office, showed him what a law firm looked like and helped him write “business letters.”
We went to restaurants, sometimes early on Saturday mornings, where he could eat whatever he wanted. Several times I joined his family for dinner at his home. We went on road trips together to visit colleges. We talked about his dreams (he was going to be an astronaut), about his school and his friends, and about issues in the neighborhood. I tried to help his parents and his sister with legal issues, and him with college applications, including the essays. They were some of the longest essays he had ever written.
Like mine, Jose’s parents believed in education and they did all they could to keep him safe in their home after school, and focused on success. Like me, he was an over-achiever, even beating my record: having perfect attendance from middle school until the spring of his senior year, having the highest GPA in his class, being Class Valedictorian.
Eight years after we started together, he was the first in his family not only to attend college, but also to graduate — with a degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State. We met at least monthly during high school, and then whenever he came home from college. Today, he has a good job with Carpenter Technologies, a wife who is a nurse, and (soon) two children. And he’s talking about going back to his high school and giving back to students who are struggling to follow his lead out of the ghetto.
My second mentee was a senior at Rowan University when I first met him. He, too, was the first in his family to get to college – a fact which was held against him by many of the friends with which he grew up, and his brothers whose careers had taken them to jail not academia. He had grown up in a bad part of Camden, NJ. Many of his friends were in jail, and the others put pressure on him to return to his roots whenever he went home for holidays. His mother was confined to an inpatient facility because of her health; his dad had not been around in a very long time. He was working long hours at low-paying jobs to help put himself through college. While he was living on the economic edge, he found an amazing amount of time to work with and be a role model for younger members of his extended family, and for other young black males.
When I met Jamar in the fall of his senior year, he had one objective: to “walk” in the commencement in May. His whole family was coming. He had so many looking up to him that he couldn’t think about failing. It did not take me long to realize that it was not confidence I saw in him, but bravado. His financial aid was running out. He was struggling to get the grades he needed, at risk of not passing a course that he needed to do well in. After that, he wasn’t at all sure of anything — where he was going to go, or what he was going to do after he received his bachelor’s degree in law and justice. Required to have an internship to graduate, he made it through the interviews for a great job, but lost it when the background check showed he had two arrests for possession when he was younger that should have been expunged, but weren’t.
We met every month for lunch and talked a lot — about homework, assignments, problems with professors, things he wasn’t getting to. We also talked about his goals, and the steps he needed to take to get to them. Those discussions made the future a lot more real, immediate, and daunting. We prioritized his choices. We worked on his resume and cover letters. We rehearsed interviews. We talked about networking. We wrote thank you letters, discussing why they were important. We didn’t talk by phone much, but we texted a lot. For him, after I earned his trust, I became a safe place where he could share his doubts and show vulnerability because he knew we’d work through it together, without judgment.
In May, he did “walk” and I met his family. Today, Jamar has a good job in a major bank where he works in the consumer fraud investigations division. When we meet these days, we talk about workplace dynamics, interpersonal skills, and next steps on possible career paths.
I have a confession to make. Being with these two young men and helping them achieve their dream of a college degree was some of the most important time I have spent on this planet. When I first became a mentor I never realized that not only would my mentees learn from me, but that I would learn so much from them. I admire them greatly. I cannot imagine how difficult their lives have been. Would I have been strong enough even to get up in the morning and keep fighting? It makes me realize just how lucky I was, and am.
I met my third mentee in September – a college junior – and I cannot wait to see where we go together.
Carl (Tobey) Oxholm III is Executive Vice President for Administration and Strategic Advancement at Rowan University.