"If your actions inspire others to aspire more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader!"
These nineteen words affirmed by Lillian Perez, the current Chief Executive Officer of the Aspire High Youth Development College Mentoring Program, stand as an unwavering pledge of allegiance and mantra to a mentoring program that has been a philosophy of the program's birthing sorority, Lambda Theta Alpha.
The program's latest installation occurred on the morning and afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 4, as students from Franklin Middle School in Franklin, New Jersey visited the Union campus of Kean University for an exclusive college tour and an unforgettable day filled with food, fun, education and empowerment.
Occurring once a semester, the program specifically targets children in lower income, single-parent households while giving them the opportunity to experience what life is like on a college campus. Before the day began, Kean student volunteers and members from other greek fraternities and sororities signed up to partake in the hourly festivities the day would entail.
Those who volunteered were given black t-shirts, as each male mentor got a shirt that read "M-Power". Additionally, the women who gave their time to help the young students were given shirts that had "Girl Power" on them. Registration tables outside of room 228 of the Miron Student Center (MSC) awaited the day's student leaders to check themselves in.
At around 9 a.m., mentors then sat in the tables of the MSC's room 228, which were all encapsulated in burgundy and grey drapings coordinated with group numbers on them, as they would be promptly debriefed on the day's activities by two sisters from Lamba Theta Alpha, named Domenica Flores and Maria Heredia.
Flores, the community service and fundraising chair for her sorority, served as the active coordinator of the event. Through helping organize the different games the kids played to having 1-on-1 conversations with them, Flores' vision of the students' visitation exceeded the reasons of just a day of fun.
"The significance of this organization goes back to the reason it was started for. Aspire High was basically mad for and started for underprivileged kids who want to go to college. They may usually think that they are a product of their environment and that is what we do not want," Flores said.
"We want to make sure that they do have a possible chance of reaching their goals, regardless of country, religion, ethnicity or whatever town they are from. We try to push them as much as we can," the senior accounting major also commented.
From sights ranging from the MSC to the very edges of the Kean campus, the kids, both young and old, short and tall and diverse in background were treated to a six-hour experience where they learned about college life and the realities of living on campus while obtaining a higher education.
During the time of their arrival at 10 a.m., the young students were introduced to the the 20 volunteering student mentors who directed them to various areas of the campus, such as the interior of Harwood Arena and the enormous Alumni Stadium just outside. Kids also earned the opportunity to see the women's basketball team practice before their season begins on Nov. 19th.
The Nancy Thompson Library, the outdoor basketball courts and the dormitories were also examined by the eight groups that trekked throughout the morning's brisk November air. The vice president and secretary of the Alpha chapter of Lambda Theta Alpha at Kean, named Valeria Cruz, a senior majoring in psychology and minoring in health sciences and occupational therapy, also contributed her efforts into being a figure of guidance for the students that visited the school.
"Aspire High has been around for a couple of years now, and when it comes to the program, I never thought that it would be this big. From the first time that we did this event to now, more kids come and more kids are involved as they volunteer, because they did not have to go," Cruz said. "Those that come in want to see what is going on with college and Aspire High as well as take their purpose for participating in this program and bringing it here and it is good to know that these kids are here because they want to be, not because they are being forced."
As the eight groups concluded their tours, the student mentors directed the Franklin Middle Schoolers to room 228 of the MSC. Waiting for the students upstairs were the tables of burgundy and gray design, and large white pieces of paper on the room's walls.
The first game of the day, titled "People who..." set off to see what the young students perceived bosses and leaders to do and how they act as well. The kids solved the puzzles as the mentors supervised.
The second game, named "Uhhh-ohhh" showcased the students' skills in helping their peers and mentors in working across an obstacle course while blindfolded. Groups of kids were able to experience, while becoming able to set an example of, what they learned during the leader and boss game through leading their teammates across the course.
Additional listening skills were necessary for success. Hilarity and fun ensued, as the mentors had to also cross the course with the help of the young students!
At approximately 12:05 p.m., lunchtime began. Pizza was rewarded to each and every student group and mentor. All of the kids enjoyed their food, as they treated themselves to the afternoon meal. As the pizza was being handed out and consumed, student mentors sat at each table with their group, as mentees asked questions pertaining to the college students' lives in school, their hardships growing up and their other leadership roles, all while drawing similarities with them.
The last event of the day involved the student's interpretations of the Aspire High Pledge, a tradition enacted by each and every program's participants. A salute using a small portion of a the 10-stanza pledge were portrayed by way of a salute, similar to those that fraternities and sororities do. LTA members, along with brothers of the fraternity Lambda Theta Phi, showed their salutes to the crowd of students.
Then, each of the eight groups were given around 20 minutes to practice their impromptu salutes with the help of a student mentor. From crazy dancing and stomping, to creative cheers, students were able to not only have fun with their salutes, but they were also able to internalize them and their meanings as soon as the event concluded at 3 p.m.
"It was a great experience. We got to actually sit down with them and impact some of the mentees. You realize that they have stories just like you, so it was very memorable," said Damion Wilson, the senior class president majoring in communications who volunteered his time as one of the day's mentors. "I took a lot from this experience, and the kids got to learn a lot from us as well. This program gave the kids an opportunity to know that they will be and are capable of being effective leaders."
Another student leader and mentor, Francisco Reyes, a junior majoring in communications as well, spoke on the program's significance in changing these kids' lives.
"It was fun, and I learned a lot from them. They were timid at first but it was good to get them to open up with the icebreakers and learn what is like to be a leader, and I felt that that was the key," Reyes said. "It also gave them the chance to see that there are people out there that are willing to help you, give you advice and guide you through life. They may not be able to walk in your shoes, but they can definitely guide you and get you to where you want to be."
For the kids who visited the Kean campus on the cool November morning, the life-lessons, fun memories, and words of encouragement will hopefully stick with them for a lifetime.