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Guiding Lights

Local mentors support first gen college students



Campus Bound Scholars and their mentors gather to celebrate their achievement.

Photo by John Halpern

Campus Bound Scholars (CBS), a program founded in 2013 by Katonah resident Amy Peck, is looking toward the future with some new initiatives as it continues to help first-generation college students achieve success. “Kids who are first generation usually start at a disadvantage—they’re not always prepared for life away from home, may not be sure who to turn to when they face academic challenges, and this can lead to a sense of not belonging,” Peck says. She notes that first gens have higher dropout rates than other students. CBS’s solution: high school seniors are paired with mentors who offer guidance and support. There is also a financial component: CBS scholars receive dormitory supplies and a monthly stipend. But it is the strong bonds between mentors and mentees that make CBS so special.

Whether they journeyed to the United States alone at the age of 16, like Milton Recinos Romero, or were born in New Rochelle to Mexican immigrants, like Melanie Anaya, the mentees say having somebody in their corner as they navigate unfamiliar waters is invaluable. Romero, a sophomore at SUNY-Delhi, lives in Mt. Kisco with his aunt, uncle, and cousin. He didn’t know any English when he arrived. “College wasn’t on my radar when I started at Fox Lane, but now I’m so lucky I have a mentor to lean on when I need help and to celebrate my achievements.”

Romero’s mentor is Bedford Corners resident Kate Branch. Branch recently retired as a nurse at Bedford Hills Elementary School, where she worked for 40 years. “Milton is so mature, self-reliant, and worldly – his experiences are vastly different than an average American college student.” The pair bonded as Branch worked with him on essays, pointed him in the right direction if he needed academic help, and in general, “offered another set of eyes and support.” Branch enthuses, “Knowing him has made my life much fuller.”

Anaya is a sophomore in an eight-year medical program at Brown University.  Her desire to become a doctor is rooted in the Mexican village where her parents grew up. “I saw the differences in health care from visiting the area,” Anaya says. When it was time to look at schools she said nobody in her family was there to help. “Other kids had more resources and had people there to support them.” Anaya is finding that support with her mentor, Bedford resident Michelle Fatibene. A first-gen Brown graduate who came here from Italy at age 12 speaking no English, Fatibene says, “Mentoring these kids brings so much to me—their commitment to success and their hope make me feel good about the future.”

Jim Jaffe of Katonah has been with CBS since its inception. “We’ve discovered through this small, grassroots organization there’s a tremendous need to support these kids, who haven’t put their hands out for anything,” he says. Jaffe was a teacher at Rippowam Cisqua School for 20 years and also a first-gen himself. “It’s a different culture when most of the members in your circle graduate high school and get a job, and you’re the first one to go to college,” Jaffe notes.

Jason Perlaza of Mt. Vernon, one of Jaffe’s mentees this year, says their relationship means so much to him. Perlaza came here from Ecuador when he was five years old and is now a sophomore at SUNY-Albany. “I talk to Jim a lot—he’s encouraged me to open up more, as in my culture we normally keep to ourselves.” Perlaza’s dream is to become a mechanical engineer, and his interactions with Jaffe have spurred Perlaza on “to pursue my passion.” And Jaffe says he enjoys meeting kids from around the county and getting to know where they came from. CBS is en route to having the mentors and mentees stay with one another for the full four years of college. The group accepts 10 students annually.

And while there are differences in the mentors’ and mentees’ experiences, it is their similarities that bind them. Jessica Barrios of Mamaroneck and her mentor, Donna Marino of Bedford, both say they have so much in common. “Being at Barnard is a totally different environment for me, and Donna had a similar experience when she went to Amherst, so we can relate to one another,” Barrios says. She notes having someone in her corner for four years is reassuring. “Every year, there can be a different obstacle to face, and I’m looking forward to growing with Donna.”

 

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