The Meaning of Mentorship

Written by Joel bervell ‘17

I arrived at Yale four years ago determined to make the world “a better place.” During my first year on campus, I joined every service organization imaginable: Yale College Council, Freshman Class Council, UNICEF, Black Men’s Union, the Leadership Institute, and many others. Despite the on-campus impact of these organizations, I could not shake the feeling that there was a community beyond the Ivy walls of Yale, yet still within New Haven, that I was failing to engage with. Students on field trip learning about a turtle

Before matriculating into Yale, many of my teachers had warned of the dangers of the New Haven community, cautioning me to stay inside the safe boundary of Yale. These beliefs negatively contribute to the production of “The Yale Bubble” - a distinct barrier between the Yale and New Haven communities that blocks student engagement. Towards the end of my freshman year, I sought to pierce the Yale Bubble by joining an opportunity offered by Dwight Hall. The program, called the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring Program (J-Z AMPTM), was dedicated to forming a bridge between Yale University and New Haven public school districts by offering middle school students academic tutoring, life skills coaching, and enrichment activities.

Joel and middle school student holding a praying mantisAs a co-director, my job was to help manage an annual budget, lead a team of dedicated mentors and develop meaningful afterschool programming for mentees. Mentors were paired with two 6th grade students with whom they worked with twice a week. Unlike other organizations on campus, J-Z AMP mentors stay with the same students starting from their 6th grade year until they graduate from middle school as 8th grade students. This type of relationship allows mentors to see all aspects of a student’s personality, personal life, and middle school development. Mentees chosen to participate in J-Z AMP are specifically at-risk and low-income, often coming from difficult home life situations which can manifest in failing grades and mistrust of authority. As a Yale student, I found how much I took for granted the mentors and teachers who have pushed me to achieve my fullest potential. Many of the students we mentored, I found, had never had someone invest in their education and success. They had never had someone believe in them. Their teachers ruled them off as hopeless from their first day. Our job was to reverse that trend.

I have to admit, being a J-Z AMP mentor was far from easy. I grappled with how to balance being both an authoritative figure and a friend, how to bring students up to par academically when they were so far behind, and how to relate with students who came from a world so vastly different than my own. I’m leaving with many of these questions unanswered, but with a much better understanding of why mentorship and mentoring programs like J-Z AMP are important in the lives of at-risk students. I’ll never forget one conversation with one 7th grade student that made me realize the significance of the work we were accomplishing.

[Rianna] was one of the most difficult students to work with. She threw fits during afterschool, refused to do her homework, and would try to pick fights with other students and even mentors. On a trip to Yale’s Art Gallery, she had spent the entire time complaining that the art was “stupid” and “did not make sense.” After the fieldtrip, as we were walking back to school, I decided to have a candid conversation with her about her attitude. When I asked her why she kept coming back to J-Z AMP, her response was poignant. “What I love about J-Z AMP,” she said, “is that I get to be the best version of myself. I get to accomplish what I want and be who I want, without anyone telling me otherwise.”  

Group photo of students with mentors

In that moment, all the struggles I had faced seemed to vanish. It has taken me three years with J-Z AMP to recognize, but mentorship is not about immediate gratification. In fact, many times a mentor will never see the impact that they have made in a student’s life. Like many public service professions, teaching and mentorship can be a thankless job. That doesn’t make it any less important. Out of everything that J-Z AMP stands for, the core tenant is that it allows for students to be themselves, to expand beyond the boundaries of what seems like a limiting world, and to explore and engage with different viewpoints. In the spirit of this belief, J-Z AMP mentors have planned hundreds of enrichment activities and dozens of field trips. Students have participated in dry-ice workshops, engaged in political discussions, and even met with the reptile man.  They have visited the Mystic Aquarium, Yale British Museums, the Statue of Liberty, and Stomp Off-Broadway shows. Each of these opportunities have developed our personal relationship with students while giving them more context as to what a decent education can achieve.

Three years after joining J-Z AMP , I am thankful. Thankful for the lessons that these students have imparted on me. Thankful for the struggles. Thankful for the smiles. Thankful for the patience and understanding that I have developed. While I may not have changed the entire world during my time at Yale, I do know that I have had an impact on the worldview of some incredible New Haven students. As I continue on into the world as a graduate of Yale, I cannot wait to continue spreading the importance of mentorship in all aspects of my life. I have J-Z AMP to thank for that. 

Joel Bervell is a YC ‘17 graduate who was student coordinator of the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentoring ProgramTM. The program, run in three locations throughout Connecticut and funded by the Marie and John Zimmermann Fund, pairs college sophomores with sixth graders in local schools. 

Group photo of students with mentors by the water

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