Connecting Threads

Student mentors support personal growth of middle school boys in Newark

On any given week at Newark’s Brick Peshine Academy last spring, two dozen seventh-grade boys could be found reciting positive rap lyrics and poetry, playing basketball, talking about their feelings, learning why math is relevant and discovering how to be “the best versions of themselves” from their Montclair State student mentors.

The youth mentorship program THREADS – Truth, Honor, Respect, Education and Development of Self – is the creation of Educational Foundations Professor Jamaal Matthews, who believes that the last part, “development of self,“ is a process that takes time, patience and lots of support. THREADS offers just that through a weekly journey of empowerment and self-discovery.

Kyle Boomhower sitting on floor with kids.
Kyle Boomhower mentored 6th grade boys at BRICK Avon Academy in Newark.

The boys are regularly reminded that “no one becomes great without help,” as mentors often share their own adolescent struggles and how they learned to focus on the things that are important – family, schoolwork and developing character.

THREADS is supported by a five-year, $750,000 National Science Foundation CAREER grant Matthews received in 2014 to explore urban students’ motivation in math during the middle and high school years. It is a vital project component of his research. Developed at the University of Michigan in 2001 and directed there by Matthews in 2005, the weekly after-school program had been dormant for several years before its 2016 reboot at Montclair State. In spring 2017, nine undergraduate students served as mentors.

While the 13-week curriculum is designed to help boys in the school-day program understand and appreciate the relevance of math in the real world, it also affirms and celebrates each boy. Additional units are devoted to self-respect and respect for women, controlling anger and stress and finding personal purpose.

“One of the most powerful elements of the program is its multigenerational structure and the flow of knowledge between the generations that promotes growth for the adolescent boys, the undergraduate mentors and myself,” says Matthews, who trains the student mentors. “The boys have a significant impact on the development of the mentors – and I am also profoundly influenced by both mentors and boys.”

I am because we are

As Matthews sees it, the rate of personal growth for mentors and students is exponential. “Our multigenerational structure reinforces ideals of community and legacy, and an understanding that no one becomes who they were meant to be alone,” he explains. “That’s why, on the first day of training for the mentors, I direct them to reflect on an African Ubuntu proverb that says, ‘I am because we are.’”

History major and current senior Kyle Boomhower mentored the inaugural THREADS cohort of sixth-grade boys from Newark’s BRICK Avon Academy in spring 2016.

Boys listen as Saul Ocasio goes over a math lesson.
Boys listen as Saul Ocasio (standing, right) goes over a math lesson.

He says his own early experiences with education bored and frustrated him, until a teacher encouraged him to think critically and conceptually. “I then made the decision to become a teacher myself in order to provide a rewarding and positive classroom experience for students,” he recalls.

Yet the path toward achieving his goal has not been straightforward. Dealing with drug addiction at the time, he failed out of Montclair State in 2009, after a single semester. After spending time in Paterson and North Philadelphia in what he calls a “heartbreaking and tumultuous time,” where he saw economic disparity up close, and after a stint in rehab, he eventually returned to Montclair State in 2014. “I resented the little suburban bubble I’d grown up in, because I was privileged at the expense of others. So I committed myself to helping empower urban youth through education.”

Boomhower says THREADS gave him valuable on-the-job experience that confirmed his decision to become a high school history teacher in a disadvantaged district. As a mentor, he shared not only his passion for critical thinking and reflection, but also the difficulties he faced after bad decisions – from addiction and arrests to being kicked out of his home and failing his classes – with the boys.

“I hoped to show them that no obstacles are insurmountable and that the path you choose in life is important,” he says. “The most rewarding component of the THREADS program was the opportunity to see the mentees grow as students and men. After working with these boys for a semester, I knew that I wanted to seek out further opportunities to work with kids, and have since worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.”

Empowering youth to create change

Mentor Jorgi-Anandi Ilmojahid was recruited for the THREADS program when taking an education class Matthews taught in spring 2016. “I wanted to mentor because I think it’s important to help middle school–aged youth build strength of character and develop a strong sense of purpose for their lives,” the math major says.

THREADS mentors and mentees at Montclair State University's campus.
THREADS mentors and mentees visit campus together.

Ilmojahid doesn’t like how young teen boys are stereotyped in society as troublemakers and rebellious. “In reality, they are eager to learn about the world, have an acute sense of justice and have an immense capacity to bring about positive change in their communities. It’s important for them to have people in their lives who will empower them to create this change.”

Before mentoring with THREADS, Ilmojahid worked in another youth program with young people ages 11 to 14, helping them think about how they might want to affect change in themselves – and their communities. “Seeing how amazing these kids are affected my approach as a THREADS mentor in that I understood that junior youth don’t need or want to be treated like children. We can learn from each other.”

“I think it’s important to help middle school–aged youth build strength of character and develop a strong sense of purpose for their lives.”

Jorgi-Anandi Ilmojahid

Working with young teens can be challenging, but for the mentors, the result is worth it. “Some days it was really difficult to keep the students focused and we mentors thought we hadn’t gotten our points across,” Ilmojahid explains. “But then when we’d hear what the boys had to say, it would just blow our minds. Knowing that the program meant something to them and that they learned so much from it was so rewarding.”

Serving as a mentor reinforced Ilmojahid’s determination to become a middle school math teacher, and, like Boomhower, teach in an urban school district. “These students have a huge potential for growth and endless capacity to contribute positively to their communities and to the world,” he says.

Uplifting the community

In spring 2017, Saul Ocasio mentored seventh-grade boys at BRICK Peshine Academy in Newark. “I wanted to be a THREADS program mentor to play my part in trying to uplift my community,” the senior history major and Newark native explains.

The experience, he says, has made a significant impact on his life. Ocasio was deeply affected by his mentees’ personal realities. “I came face-to-face with the many issues these urban young men of color face daily,” he says. “The hardships that they’re forced to overcome will influence their future, as well as ours.”

Llyasha Moore and Samueldo Mompoint (in white) talk with boys in the program.
Llyasha Moore (left) and Samueldo Mompoint (in white) talk with boys in the program.

Like Boomhower, Ocasio drew on his own life experiences to provide empathic guidance to his mentees. “My approach was heavily influenced by my own dealings with school systems that didn’t support me and the lack of hope and optimism I harbored as a student,” he recalls, saying that perspective drove his interactions with the students.

Ocasio says he benefited greatly from his experience as a THREADS mentor. “Being able to watch the students mature and begin to internalize the program’s lessons, ideals and concepts, and apply them to their own lives in order to grow was a truly gratifying experience.”

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