Student mentors teach possibilities of education

Joe Carlson

Along with buildings, bike paths and bookstores, Universities have bridges. But while most of these objects have physical foundations, not every bridge is visible.
The University is currently building a different kind of bridge — one that reaches into its diverse surrounding communities — in a unique program that closes the gap between high school and college for area Chicano and Latino students.
Currently, 23 University students are sent to two high schools, St. Paul Humboldt and Minneapolis Southwest, as part of the El Puente program to mentor younger students on a one-on-one basis and show them a college education is not just possible for them, but likely.
El Puente, which means “the bridge” in Spanish, is operated by the Chicano/Latino Learning Resource Center. It began last fall as the result of a number of studies that examined how to help Chicano and Latino students build better careers by attending the University. One of the biggest blocks to a college education for students in this ethnic group is a high dropout rate during middle school and high school — approximately 45 percent, according to national and state research.
Also, many Chicano and Latino students do not have strong family support to go to college.
“It’s not that they can’t do it,” said Beatriz Menanteau, a junior in women’s studies and psychology who is a mentor in the program. “Many times … they may be the first students in their families to think of going to college.”
Funding for the program came from grants from private sources, the McNeely Foundation and the Pillsbury Foundation.
Although the future of the program was uncertain at its outset, El Puente now has funding to continue bridging the gap between high school and college. Next year, the program’s ranks will expand to at least 30, with Howarth officially named as its director.
“The next step for us is to institutionalize it,” said Heidi Barajas Howarth, co-founder and director of El Puente . “I’m a graduate student, and I don’t want the program to disappear when I disappear.”
Each mentor’s approach to the program is different, depending on the strengths of the mentor and the needs of the mentee. Jean Strommer, a co-founder of El Puente, said one mentor who works with technology at his job helped his mentee e-mail Gov. Arne Carlson for a high school class assignment. To the surprise and joy of the student, Carlson replied to the message.
While some mentors stress academic issues, Menanteau prefers a less formal approach. Coffee shops make good places to meet and talk about school, family and life in general.
“Some of the other mentors do a lot of academic tutoring,” Menanteau said, “but for me and my mentee, it’s much more of a friendship thing.”
Besides cafes, Menanteau has also taken her mentee to the University a few times, she said, so that she can get a feel for the University campus and college lifestyle.
Menanteau said when she heard about the program while in the Chicano/Latino center, she knew she had to check it out.
“I’ve had many mentors and I believe very strongly in being a mentor myself,” Menanteau said. “So when the opportunity came up … I really could not turn it down.”
Although the high school students benefit from the El Puente program, so do mentors from the University. This is one of the differences between tutorships and mentorships, Howarth said. While only the tutored student gains from a tutoring program, both parties benefit from the mentoring experience.
“You learn a little bit about yourself when you interact with them,” Menanteau said. “You get to relate it to your own life.
“Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch to remember what it was like to be in ninth grade,” Menanteau said. “It shows me how far I’ve come.”