September 11, 2013

Advice from those who have been there

By Barbara Baker

Community members and want to be mentors (in the background, left to right) Jason Sauls, David Johnson  and Leon Johnson  take questions from the group about living in rural Colorado.

Community members and want to be mentors (in the background, left to right) Jason Sauls, David Johnson and Leon Johnson take questions from the group about living in rural Colorado. Good food and lots of laughter made the event fun for everyone involved. The older men were assuring this younger generation that they are here and they are available to help the students at any time. (Courtesy Photo)

Big arms. Big voices. Big laughs.  Big hearts.  Big impact.
It all came with the dispersal of a little good advice. 
“The only stupid mistake is a mistake not learned from,” Jason Sauls tells a group of young men who have gathered for lunch with him and others at Hays Student Center on the campus of Northeastern Junior College at the end of last Spring semester.  Sauls is the part-time ombudsman on the college campus and on this particular day, he has brought together a few of his work colleagues and their family  members who are excited for an opportunity to interact with NJC  students. They all have embraced the idea that it takes a village to raise a child—and,  to get one to finish a college degree. 

“Don’t let a mistake hold you back,” he tells the students as he introduces his wife and children, and his friends who have lined the walls of the room.  The students look on with interest as they enjoy some homemade enchiladas and other dishes prepared by those who have come to connect with them. The students are smiling. They clearly feel at home and know they are among friends.

While Sauls work is primarily with urban students at Northeastern, he is available to help any student who needs him. Everyone at Northeastern is invested in student success, but Sauls is part of a specific  academic team committed to helping some higher risk groups of students succeed. Others who work closely with Sauls are Kim Charles, a transition specialist; Misti Pierce, Director of Academic Support Services and Assessment; Maret Felzien, a reading specialist on campus who also does extensive student advising, and David McNabb, Director of Residence Life and Student Activities.

Newly-released analysis of  U.S. Education Department data shows that from 2009 to 2011, the rate at which Black and Latino students entered colleges and universities considerably outpaced that of Whites. A 2013 study by the Educational Testing Service out of Princeton, NJ shows that minority students are expected to swell the ranks of undergraduates over the next 15 years, pushing enrollments in higher education up by more than 2.6 million students. Some 80 percent of these new students will be African American, Hispanic or Asian American.

If Northeastern hopes to get its share of these markets, it must begin preparing for and serving these populations. “We know that these students come to us with different perspectives, needs and wants,” notes Felzien. “We are delighted that they’ve made a choice to come to Northeastern, to step out of their comfort zone and to want to be part of what we have going on here. We want to help them with that process and we want to help them celebrate when they succeed at it.”  Some urban students come to campus as athletes and they get a certain level of mentoring and monitoring from their coaches. However, the non-athlete student needs to be able to find other resources and connections on campus and in the community as well.

David Johnson (left) and NJC Ombudsman Jason Sauls (right) make light of some of their experiences while students listen. NJC’s Director of Academic Support Services and Assessment Misti Pierce (far right) observes the group dynamics taking place during this session that brought students and community members together.

David Johnson (left) and NJC Ombudsman Jason Sauls (right) make light of some of their experiences while students listen. NJC’s Director of Academic Support Services and Assessment Misti Pierce (far right) observes the group dynamics taking place during this session that brought students and community members together.

Sauls knows that having some mentors from the community on board is another key way to connect with students and keep them engaged in the college process. On this particular day, he called upon his good friends and fellow professional colleagues at the Sterling Correctional Facility to come to campus to help a group of students celebrate the completion of a semester, and perhaps even getting a degree at NJC.   Joining the conversation were David Johnson, Calvin Fields and Leon Johnson who were happy to participate. Initially, they come off as a bit imposing. After all, they have arms as big as some people’s thighs and they carry themselves with a certain in-charge demeanor. But, after a little interaction, you know these men have hearts of gold and there is a soft side to their tough exterior.

“I want a few of my friends to talk to you,” Sauls told the student group. “These are some people that I want you to know you can lean on.”  Yeah, they are certainly big enough to be leaned on.
Many students on campus have already seen these same gentlemen, all correctional officers,  in the fitness center, primarily in the weight room where they spend time almost daily working hard to perfect strong bodies. One by one, these gentlemen make it to the front of the small room to talk to the students. The messages are powerful and really cut to the chase.

“No one asks you how long it took for you to get where you’re at,” points out David Johnson as he begins telling them about his life experience, which includes some really low periods. “It’s just important that you stay focused and get there. Before you do anything, take five minutes and really think about what you’re about to do,” he encourages.  Sometimes, he said, that five minutes can make all the difference in the world, especially when you have some knuckle head friends who would like to really lead you astray.

Leon Johnson also spoke candidly to the group about growing up in a group home and being raised with 12 other young men amidst tons of adversity. “I still managed to pull myself through it and I’ve had a 21 year career with the Department of Corrections, 14 of them here at Sterling,” he tells the group, noting that there’s no room for excuses and each individual is responsible for what becomes of him or her.

The students listen intently as these adults tell them where they came from and what their struggles were as they found their own way to manhood.  Students threw questions to the front of the room and the men answered them one by one. Some of the questions represented standard curiosity about how these guys like living in a predominantly Caucasian rural area. For many metro students coming to rural Colorado, there’s a huge cultural gap.  Students who do not transition into this new environment successfully either choose to leave, or find themselves isolated and disengaged. Sauls considers it his goal to catch these new learners at NJC before any of this happens. Connecting NJC students with like-community members and others who truly have their best interest at heart is critical for these young people.  Johnson and Fields talk candidly about what is good and bad about being in rural Colorado. Most of the comments are really positive, singing praises of a community with a great college, full of good people doing good things. “You have to put yourself out there and meet the people and appreciate the experience,” one of the speakers suggests to the group. “The best job you get offered after you get your degree may be in a place just like Sterling, so you need to learn how to be part of this kind of an environment.”

“The reason that I put on this experience was to two fold,” he says. “First, I wanted to bring my immediate family to my workplace to meet some of the students that I’ve had positive contact with, and secondly, I wanted to connect some of the influential NJC staff and some community members together with the students so they know who is here to help them succeed. I wanted to celebrate a semester of perseverance and fortitude. I wanted to bring these individuals together to enjoy homemade enchiladas that my wife Joanne made with the first ingredient being love. Many of these students are away from their home to pursue academic success, some of them for the first time ever, and nothing brings people together better than homemade food.”

Sauls work is part of the college’s ongoing efforts to retain students. “I honestly believe that all of them (students) were in jeopardy of not returning to NJC based upon socio-economic factors alone,” he said. “This truth coupled with an impressionable mind may lead one to stray from the driven course. That’s why it is so important for us to impress upon them to finish what they start. It will make them so proud and increase their self-worth immensely if we can get them through college.”

Misti Pierce saw this event as a great way for the college, the community and the students to connect  “For students leaving home for the first time, it is important that they have a sense of community and to feel like they have a strong and reliable support group.  Jason has done a great job of connecting with these students and also connecting them with members of the community who can mentor them – this was evident with the turnout at this get-together.” 

Kim Charles also felt the lunch gathering was worthwhile. “I work with many of these young men as not only their teacher, but also as a tutor and mentor.  In the time I spend with them, many share  the difficulties they face adjusting to college life and the small town.” She notes that there were young women invited as well but they did not attend the luncheon.

Charles said that among this group were four young men who even though faced with many challenges, stuck it out and graduated from NJC  this last May. All four of them have transferred on to further their education.  “That is probably where it all started.  Those young men spoke as part of a panel discussion moderated by Maret Felzien and openly shared information about their successes and difficulties at NJC.”   Jason then made contact with those young men and I think he created this lunch session as a result of that conversation.

Felzien asked the young men to participate in the panel discussion. “We had a group of four young men here on campus who had all been here for several years, and all of them were completing their degrees this last May,” she explains. “I had admired them for finding friendship and support among each other and for staying at it and finishing what they started, and I really wanted to acknowledge how proud we were of them--to celebrate them--let them know that we knew it was not without adversity that they had done what they did.  I asked them if they would just share with us some of the difficulties and successes they faced in getting through college this far away from home.  Naturally, they talked about how they missed certain cultural factors, but more importantly they talked about how they missed being able to connect with adults similar to themselves. Most of them had connected with Calvin and Leon and Jason previously in the weight room on campus, and that had made a huge difference for them.” 

Charles notes that NJC and Sterling are quite the culture shock to some urban students and finding some friendly and supportive faces from the beginning will hopefully help with the transition and keep them on track to be successful. Charles said that the sophomores who have returned to NJC this year are being asked to help mentor the new freshmen who arrived this fall.

Sauls is encouraged by the outcome of his effort.  Ten students that were at  the lunch last spring returned to Sterling this fall. They are helping him and Charles plan upcoming activities to bring students, staff and members of the “village” together again this year.