The Seventh- and Eighth-grade New York City area youth (mostly 12- and 13-year-olds) had traveled to Binghamton to participate in this year’s J.U.M.P. Weekend, a four-day program sponsored each spring semester by the Juvenile Urban Multicultural Program (J.U.M.P). The program was founded in 1991 to aid “at-risk” students in underprivileged communities, where high school drop-out rates were well above the national average. J.U.M.P. believes the most effective way to help combat this problem is to motivate students to pursue higher education at an early age, specifically during their transition into high school.
Each “protégé” (mentee) in the program is paired with a “host,” who lives on campus, and a mentor, who work together to connect with their protégé. All hosts and mentors make a commitment to stay in contact with the protégé for five years after the weekend so that the protégés have someone they can turn to if they have issues or need advice on applying to college. I feel blessed to have been given this opportunity to make an impact on someone’s life for the next five years.
While I knew that this weekend would be a huge time commitment on top of my academic obligations, I also saw an incredible opportunity to make a meaningful connection with my protégé. Recent experiences both in and out of New York City had strengthened my desire to be a part of youth development, work on community building activities, and, especially as I reach the end of my career as a Master’s student, to share my college experience with those who may not know about their educational opportunities going forward.
Over the next four days, over numerous ice cream cones and activities, and late nights hanging out in the dorms, the host and I got to know our protégé. She was a soft-spoken, straightforward middle school student from Brooklyn who was interested in music and law. She had been looking forward to this weekend for a while and embraced it as an opportunity to spend some time away from home, see new places and meet new people. I have no question that she will succeed.
In addition to ice cream and fun, the weekend also included educational workshops on leadership and success, cultural and social stereotyping, sexuality and tolerance, legal rights, and a special session where girls and boys had separate discussions about specific gender-related issues. Although the forums were mostly for the protégés to learn from each other and the forum leaders, I learned much just from being present and listening to their stories. Many of them shared deep secrets, incredible stories, and thoughts mature beyond their years.
Each night, protégés were able to participate in fun activities, including a hip-hop workshop and a roller skating night at Skate Estate, where many resilient protégés put on skates for the first time and tentatively made their way around the rink. As their confidence increased, so did their speed and their smiles. My protégé had only been skating twice before, and while initially she gripped my arm tightly, she was eventually coasting like a pro! I was proud to see her skate around with her friends, bubbling with excitement.
The final night concluded with a party in the Appalachian Dining Hall. The middle schoolers put on a talent show, showcasing their dancing, stepping, MCing, and singing skills. Then they danced the night away to a DJ from the city, with a mix of music from around the world and some old-school favorites.
During one of the breaks, I took our musical protégé to Fine Arts where she was able to play on one of the nicest pianos our school has to offer. Without a word, she sat down and played for an hour straight. She said that while she used to take lessons, now she teaches herself her favorite songs. It was obvious she had dedicated years to this instrument, and I am sure that her passion for the piano could be translated to anything she put her mind to.
At the Recognition Ceremony on the last day, we all received certificates of participation and had the opportunity to say a few words to everyone. Many of the students who shared their feelings rarely had the chance to share their thoughts with so many people, but they spoke eloquently and with great feeling, expressing their bond with their mentor and host, and their increased desire to attend college. The effectiveness of this program really shone during this last session, and I believe we truly made a difference in the youths’ lives and inspired them to pursue more for themselves. We tearfully said goodbye to our protégé, making her promise to let us know when she made it home, and wished her the best. Luckily, the journey doesn’t end here - J.U.M.P. weekend is just the beginning of a lasting connection.