Shiheem Bryant remembers what it’s like to be in middle school.
Bryant is a senior business major and an outstanding wrestler at UNC Pembroke. During the fall semester, he took time out to go back to middle school to help kids.
“I have a group of 11 or 12 in two sessions,” Bryant said. “The kids are great; we talk about everything.”
Bryant comes from a family of nine, and school was not always easy for him. His weekly mentorship was based on the school’s “word of the week,” words like discipline, sportsmanship and respect for authority, he said.
“I always ask them what they think the word means, and then I tell them what I think,” Bryant said. “This week, I’m having them make thank-you cards for their teachers.”
When a student reaches a goal – such as two weeks without a trip to the office – they get a reward from their mentor.
“Yes, it’s definitely doing some good,” Bryant said.
Approximately one-third of Robeson County’s school children drop out before graduation.
“That is a wasted resource to their families and for their communities,” said Dr. Jerry Jones, the Joseph B. Oxendine Distinguished Professor of School Leadership in UNCP’s School of Education. Dr. Jones is a former teacher, counselor, principal and superintendent.
“I went through the process: what age do students drop out? who will they listen to?” he said. “My thought was to engage people closest to the students’ age who are role models.”
Beverly Vause is a tennis player from Fairmont, N.C. She agreed with Bryant that talking with kids produces results.
“I have a group of 15-20 in all, and I meet with them in groups from one to four,” said Vause, who wants to teach. “Yes, it helps to talk about things.
“When my kids get into trouble, we talk about that,” she said. “The girls are more emotional.
“One of the boys said he didn’t like a particular class,” Vause said. “I told him about college requirements. I don’t like every class but they are all important to developing your general skills.”
Among its nearly 500 student-athletes, UNCP has students willing and able to be mentors. The Brave Leadership program took its first steps this fall when Dr. Jones got together with Athletic Director Dan Kenney.
“Children are more likely to listen to someone closer to their age, and athletes are in a unique position to interact positively with young people,” Dr. Jones said. “These are outstanding individuals, they are very excited about the program.”
Kenney has a long record of sending his student-athletes into the public schools to volunteer. As a basketball coach, he started a reading mentorship program in the late 1980s.
“I was excited to hear the School of Education wanted to start a mentorship program,” Kenney said. “From role models, young people can see what the future can be like.
“Our student-athletes will take the school’s ‘word of the week’ and talk about it in personal terms with their mentees,” Kenney said.
Kenney agreed to use the Allen C. Meadors Leadership Scholarship to award four student-athletes a year for their successful completion of the program.
“When Chancellor Meadors retired, we agreed this scholarship would be used for just such a program,” he said. “I want to thank Dr. Jones and Dean (Leah) Fiorentino for bringing their idea to me.”
Another goal of Brave Leadership is to bring students to campus, and the Athletic Department has offered free tickets to games.
“It would be beneficial for kids to see their mentor in action,” Dr. Jones said.
The program aims to help students and their communities while building bridges between the University and the public schools and between UNCP students and the community.
“We’re going to track our results to look at the long term impact,” Dr. Jones said. “A dropout affects so many economic equations, and a high school graduate has so many possibilities to benefit themselves, their communities and this University.”
Like all good programs, Brave Leadership requires funding. Dr. Jones and Kenney plan to appeal to one or more civic organizations to help.
“As a pilot, this program can grow, and there are challenges,” Kenney said.
Paving the way for the pilot program are Red Springs Middle Principal Karen Floyd, Pembroke Middle Principal Chris Clark, PSRC Superintendent Johnny Hunt, Dr. Linda Emanuel and Dr. Brenda Deese. UNCP faculty volunteers are Dr. Reggie Oxendine Jr. and Dr. Baxter Williams of the School of Education.