Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a two-part series on IT pathway programs. Read the first installment on building successful programs from the ground up.
Toward the end of the first year of a Department of Labor grant to Mississippi Delta Community College, Martha Claire Drysdale and her colleagues started noticing something surprising.
“Relationships were kind of building themselves within the program,” she says. “Students were pairing up and becoming inseparable. You’d see them together in class, and then in the cafeteria, and then in the grocery store.”
And Drysdale, director of career and technical education at the college, started to wonder: Could she operationalize these friendships and build retention and completion?
Turns out she could. The school’s mentorship program is part of the college’s IT Pathways program, funded by the Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative. The initiative funds seven colleges in Mississippi and Louisiana to implement evidence-based career-pathway programs in IT, using a template developed in Washington state.
The goal is to pair technical training with basic skills to allow students to complete the program with a certificate in a highly marketable IT field, such as cybersecurity, industrial IT or health informatics. And at Delta, mentorship turned out to be the key to keeping students from falling through the cracks. Here’s how.
Let students mentor first
The program started with a pilot group of eight students, who mentored and advised Drysdale on how to scale up the program. It was suggested that Drysdale let the students take the reins.
“We presented them with what we thought would be a good program, and they took it apart,” she says, laughing. “They said, ‘We know you think these are important, but it’s more about letting us build the relationships and see what we can do for each other.”
Instead of matching students on administrative criteria, Drysdale and her team first helped students meet and then supported the friendships that stuck. At one luncheon, for instance, mentors determined the seating arrangement. It worked. Two or three more peer groups formed.
“I became more of a facilitator of the mentorship program than its director,” she says. “I can offer, ‘Hey, I have this space, and if you want to use it every Tuesday at 2 [p.m], I’ll give you drinks and snacks.’”
Look for leadership skills
One day, someone on Drysdale’s team noticed that a student in the program regularly took a group of other kids (who didn’t have cars) to a local shop at lunch, so they could get sodas. Drysdale thought that student would be a good mentor.
“It’s not always leadership as it applies to school,” she says. “It can also be community leadership.”
Drysdale is attracted to initiative — something that’s making her program stronger.
Seek outside funding
Delta already had funding for the IT pathways program through the Department of Labor, but there were very specific rules for how the money could be spent, so Drysdale pursued other streams of funding. That funding allowed her to offer the mentors a stipend so they could afford to spend time outside of class helping her develop the program.
Because of the stipends, the students took the mentorship program seriously. “You can’t be everywhere at once, and [the mentors] really felt invested,” she says.
She knew that was the case when, the day before final exams, she got a call from a mentor. One of the cohort’s star pupils — a woman who’d started the program without a GED, quickly earned it and then achieved the highest grades in the class — wouldn’t be able to take the final exam: She had enough gas to get to school, but she didn’t have enough to get home.
Because of the unrestricted grant, Drysdale was able to solve that problem. “Tell her to come to class,” she told the mentor. “We’ll take her to the gas station afterwards and get her gas to get her home.”
At such moments, Drysdale feels the power of what the program has created: students’ investment in one another’s success.
“When a student comes in and says, ‘Hey, Vanessa can’t come to class tomorrow; she’s freaking out because she can’t get home because she doesn’t have gas money — what can we do?’ it’s a moment of sheer joy as an administrator,” Drysdale says. “I thought, ‘She gets it.’ It’s not what I can do for you, but what can we do for each other.”
By the way, Vanessa made it to her final exam. She’s on track to graduate at the end of next year.
About Accelerating Opportunity
The IT Pathways profiled in this two-part feature are a part of the Accelerating Opportunity initiative. Accelerating Opportunity is a community college initiative of Jobs for the Future in partnership with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, the National Council for Workforce Education, and the National College Transition Network/WorldEd. It receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Kresge Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Arthur Blank Foundation, the Woodruff Foundation, the Casey Foundation and the University of Phoenix Foundation.