Beyond School Walls: Combining Mentorship with On-the-Job Learning

January 8, 2020

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Beyond School Walls
© 2019 Beyond School Walls

I am an all-in, passionate mentor. I grew up without my father, and there was no one in my life who stepped into that role model position. Because of that experience, I have spent the past 25 years filling that role for young men who had a similar upbringing. 

I work for Cox Enterprises and for years I’ve been visiting students at Chamblee Charter High School once a week during their lunch hour through our mentor partnership program. 

Last year, Cox and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta (BBBSMA) joined forces to launch a new approach to mentoring with a program called Beyond School Walls. Though other BBBS affiliates had tried the program, this was the first of its kind for Atlanta. The pilot paired 20 Chamblee Charter High School students, who we affectionally call “Littles,” with Cox Enterprises employees, known as “Bigs.” 

This program combines traditional mentorship with an immersive educational experience. The one simple, but very important element that makes this program different than traditional mentoring programs is location. 

Instead of mentors visiting students at school, students come to Cox Enterprises twice a month. This change in environment has made a world of difference. 

The Difference “On the Job” Can Make

So often when I would visit young men at their high school, they were self-conscious or preoccupied by perceptions of those around them, making it difficult to build rapport. 

But, when the Littles come to Cox, everything changes. Fewer distractions means a more relaxed atmosphere where guards can come down and meaningful, one-on-one conversations can ensue.

At Cox, the Littles are exposed to a professional environment and become mindful of how they present themselves to others. They hold their head a little higher because they’re in a diverse work environment and see professionals who look like them. Being in this space also helps them see beyond the day-to-day worries of a teenager and know that they can, indeed, make it to the other side. 

Another key difference of the Beyond School Walls program is the level of student engagement. Instead of being told by a coach, counselor, teacher, or parent that they have to participate, Littles choose to be a part of this program and are more receptive to the idea of mentorship.

Each visit includes a group curriculum presentation and time for the Bigs and Littles to reflect on the curriculum together. One of our lessons focused on professional development where we discussed goals, time management, and interview preparation. Throughout the program, we have also talked about opportunities after high school and even helped the Littles set up a LinkedIn profile.

Through the Beyond School Walls program, I was paired with Nafis. During one of our many conversations, we discussed his dreams, and he told me he wanted to be a boxer. We talked a lot about how he plans to achieve that goal and the sacrifices he needs to make. We also talked a lot about other avenues he could pursue, like college or the military, and I was able to open his eyes to other options.

In an essay, Nafis wrote about this very topic: 

“I would come to a realization that he wanted me to have options so I wouldn’t close myself from other opportunities. He knew my mind was set on only one thing and I was blind and couldn't see what could happen if my life doesn't go into that lane. In life anything could happen; maybe I don't get what I want. That's why I should have a plan B. Mr. Roger had made me come to reality on having multiple options. This taught me that maybe my obsession on one thing could have other doors closed for me.”

Employer Values in the Next Generation

This is the ultimate reward of mentorship and I am thankful to Cox for actively encouraging employees to volunteer in the communities that we serve and inspire our future workforce.

Beyond School Walls has all the elements of a traditional mentorship program, but with one impactful change in environment. And, because the program doesn’t intend to recreate the wheel, it easily can be scaled across the country with businesses large and small. In fact, the Atlanta pilot was a success on every level and was even expanded to accommodate 35 pairs of Bigs and Littles for the 2019/2020 school year. 

This is life-changing work. I’d encourage any company to open its doors to this type of program because it can open the eyes and minds of youth in new ways. 

About Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta: For 60 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta (BBBSMA) has transformed the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in our community through a proven youth development strategy: one-to-one mentoring. The mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters is to create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth. The agency serves approximately 1,400 children from 12 metro Atlanta counties on an annual basis. For more information, visit www.bbbsatl.org