Some children idolize professional athletes and movie stars while growing up. Senior Yvette Betancourt’s heroes included Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other activists who promoted peace and positive social change.
So when Betancourt, of Brodheadsville, received a brochure about Shippensburg University’s Martin Luther King Mentor Program, she was intrigued.
The mentor program, part of the university’s MLK Academic Retention Program, seeks to improve the graduation rate and overall educational experience for students of color, students who may be the first in their family to attend college, or those who may have financial need.
The brochure included quotes from Martin Luther King, which immediately caught Betancourt’s attention. “There were photos of students who looked happy and peaceful,” she said. “I thought, this is a group of people that I wanted to be surrounded by, with that level of positivity and motivation.”
Betancourt, a first-generation college student, decided to participate in the mentor program when she began classes at Ship that fall.
Through the mentor program, first year students are matched with an upperclass student who serves as a dedicated peer mentor, or FRIEND (Furthering Relationships In Every New Direction). Mentors can provide support in numerous ways, including academic tutoring, guidance on practical skills like time management and budgeting, or simply listening and offering encouragement.
Betancourt said she had a wonderful experience with the mentor program during her first year on campus. “It’s a good program. I built amazing relationships and connections with other participants. I knew I wanted to share that with others.”
Now a senior, she has served as a mentor for three years. She is one of nine mentors, each of whom serves four or five mentees.
“Yvette is a caring and experienced MLK mentor,” said Dr. Gwendolyn Durham, coordinator of the MLK Program. “She will go over and beyond to help those who genuinely have an interest in being a successful student.”
“The first few weeks for a new student are crucial,” Betancourt said. “We give them the extra boost that they need to succeed in college.
“I want them to feel comfortable and relaxed. They are free to ask any questions, and share their concerns or fears.”
According to Betancourt, two of the biggest concerns expressed by new students are time management and the academic challenge. “College is harder than some students realize, and it takes them by surprise.”
Betancourt frequently directs students to study groups and other campus resources. Sometimes she must handle more serious concerns. One of her mentees began drinking alcohol several nights a week. “I addressed it with the student, spent time with him, and gave him positive activities to do. Fortunately, he stopped drinking before it became abuse.”
Despite her best efforts, not all of her mentees have succeeded. Two past mentees left college for academic reasons. “I was down on myself for a while, but I learned that I can’t help everyone, no matter how much I want to,” she said.
Betancourt spends roughly ten hours a week working with mentees, both individually and as a group. The formal mentoring relationship ends when students complete their first year, but the friendship often continues. She remains close friends with many of her past mentees and continues to provide moral support.
Betancourt will continue mentoring after graduation, but in a much different capacity. This summer, she will serve with the Peace Corps as an English literacy teacher for young children.
Serving in the Peace Corps has been a dream of hers since high school. Her first stop is St. Lucia for training, with a placement to follow in the eastern Caribbean.
“I know, it’s a tourist attraction,” she joked. “But just one mile from some of these beautiful island resorts, there is extreme poverty. I love kids, and I love teaching. I really want to give back and pass on some kind of knowledge that can help people.”
In addition to her busy schedule as a mentor, Betancourt, a communication/ journalism major with a minor in international studies, serves as editor of the “Life” section for The Slate. She also is completing an internship with the Franklin County Visitor’s Bureau as a writer and graphic designer.
Eventually she hopes to work in communications for National Geographic or The United Nations.
“I want to tell stories. I want to showcase the world, not just the bad, but the good. I want to remind people that positive things happen all the time, too. The world is still a beautiful place. You just have to look for it.”