Submitted by Amy Price Azano
Director, Center for Rural Education

This past October, two centers at Virginia Tech–the Center for Rural Education and the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies–kicked off a mentoring program on Virginia Tech’s campus. The mentoring program is a 1:1 match between multilingual students from a rural high school and Latinx students at Virginia Tech who serve as their mentors. The program consists of on-site visits (including the mentors traveling to the students’ school) and weekly online meetings. Below is a reflection and photos from the Galax Division Interpreter/English Learner Lead, Elizabeth Stringer-Nunley.

As the Galax bus approached, the students were buzzing with excitement about being on campus. When we arrived at our stop to get off the bus, the VT mentors were there with a “hype squad” to welcome us to campus. One of the students said, “Look! They look like us!” The day would only get better from there.

The group began with icebreaker activities. The connections made with the mentors were immediate and deep. Conversations varied from what their favorite foods are to their personal immigration stories. You could feel the excitement at being able to connect with someone who looked like them, spoke their same language, and had similar experiences as they did.

The group continued the day with a short walk through various parts of the campus, including Torgersen Bridge where they witnessed true studying occurring. Many of the students were impressed with how quiet this area was.

We then reached El Centro, the Hispanic and Latinx Cultural and Community Center. This was where the VT mentors had learned about the Galax Mentoring program and also serves as a center for Latinx students on campus. There were flags of Spanish-speaking nations lining the walls, and the Galax students were excited to point out their own country’s flag. The mentors shared some of their own experiences and their reasons for wanting to participate in this program as a mentor. The Galax students were visibly awed to hear that these college students had come from many of the same countries, backgrounds, and struggles as themselves. While we were at El Centro, the students learned who their specific mentor would be. The mentors had planned a fun activity where the Galax students received an envelope (along with some really cool VT swag!) that contained the picture, name, origin, and some fun facts about their mentor. As the envelopes were opened, there were high fives, fist bumps, hugs, and shouts of “yes!” heard all around the room.

Besides their individual mentors, the students also have mentoring “familias.” There are four mentor/mentee pairs in each familia. This will ensure that all mentors and mentees have someone to work with on future visits in case someone is absent.

After a delicious, all-you-can-eat lunch in “D2” (Virginia Tech’s award-winning dining hall), we had to say goodbye. The Galax students were genuinely sad to have to leave their mentors behind. Once we were on our way back to Galax, the students all wanted to see each other’s mentor envelopes and talked animatedly about who they were paired with. Several students asked if we could come back every day. A few even said that they did not even realize that there were people in our area like them. One Indigenous student from Guatemala had tears in his eyes when he thanked me for connecting him with someone at VT from Guatemala. He said he had missed his home so badly and being able to connect with someone who knew the same places and foods and culture as him had helped him that day.

The Galax students wore huge smiles all day. There was not one behavior problem while we were on campus. Students who never speak at school could not stop talking during this trip. Students seen as loners at school were telling jokes and stories to groups of mentors while on campus. Amazing connections and conversations were going on all day.

As an exit ticket activity, I asked the students to tell me their favorite part of the day as they got off the bus back at Galax High School. Some of the answers were to be expected, such as “the food” or “getting out of school,” but there were others that really made this endeavor worthwhile, such as “meeting an undocumented student like me who was able to go to college” or “hearing how Cristian works construction during the summers to pay for his college – maybe I could do that too” and “Axel has tattoos like me and I’m going to be like him one day” and “I didn’t realize that there were students from Honduras in college.”

The Galax students are already looking forward to our next visit to VT on December 1, and are thinking about fun things we can do together when the mentors travel to Galax on November 10. Even though the program is just getting started, it has already been a huge success!

Photos by Becca Halm.