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Honors Students Reach Out to
Community in Mentoring Program
February 28, 2000

Ten high school students listen, riveted, as they are ushered through the labs where Amy the calf was cloned.

Jerry Yang, head of the Transgenic Animal Facility, explains along the way the principles of genetics, the techniques of cloning, the expense of doing research, and the practical applications and moral implications of cloning. At the end of the tour, he applauds their questions and hands out his business card, inviting them to contact him with further questions.

The meeting between high school students and this world-renowned researcher was arranged by UConn student Jennifer Blessing, who has been giving the Stafford students a "mini-course" in genetics as part of a new mentoring initiative that matches students in the UConn honors program with talented young people in elementary and high school.

"I was thinking about what I could do to help out," says Blessing, a senior majoring in secondary education. "I'm really interested in giving kids more than the basics in high school."

The Stafford students - and their teacher - appreciate her efforts. Despite hectic schedules, they have spent two hours a week after school for four weeks learning about genetics with Blessing. "Jennifer offered a different perspective," says Kathy Witkowski, head of math and science at Stafford High School. "Her course was building on things they've learned before, but it was a lot more interesting for them than just reading a book."

Talents and Opportunities
The mentoring program, known as Comment, is the brainchild of Trevor Tebbs, assistant director of the honors program and a graduate student in gifted and talented education. "Out in the schools there are many many kids who are being underserved," he says. "Many teachers and parents are anxious to find something that will add a challenge to their school day."

To identify students interested in education and community service, a survey called an Interest-a-lyzer - originally created by Professor Joseph Renzulli - was distributed to honors students at the start of the fall semester. "We took a look at the students, what they have to offer and how we could put their expertise, their talents, their passion to work in the community," Tebbs says. He also polled local schools to find out their needs.

He netted a pool of nearly 40 students - mostly juniors and seniors, but some freshmen and sophomores too. Then began the task of matching their interests with the opportunities in the community.

Jennifer Richard, a junior majoring in English and psychology, had noted that there are not enough drama programs for young people. Tebbs had the perfect match for her: she spent the fall semester working with an after school theater program at Ashford School, helping students in fifth to eighth grades prepare for a production of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

"I had a great time feeling I could put my knowledge to use," she says. "I did drama in high school, but I didn't think I'd get to use that experience in college, since I'm not a drama major."

Richard began by spending two hours a week on Mondays and Fridays; soon she was going out to Ashford on Wednesdays as well. "I didn't want there to be a rehearsal and not see what was going on," she says. When time came for the performance, she saw the school had put her in the program as stage manager: "I didn't expect that," she says.

Julie Treadow said on her questionnaire that she thought schools should pay more attention to gifted and talented students. Tebbs matched her with two gifted elementary students.

Since October Treadow, a freshman who says she was considered gifted at Manchester High School, has spent one afternoon a week in Tolland's Birch Grove Primary School.

She spends the first hour teaching math to two gifted second graders. "I do multiplication using areas," she says. "It's something the kids wouldn't usually experience until fourth grade." A second hour is spent helping the teacher with the whole class.

Treadow hopes to become a teacher and says this experience is invaluable: "The kids are getting something out of it and so am I. I'm so lucky to be doing this as a freshman. To get into the education program, they want references and experience."

For now, the mentoring program operates on a volunteer basis. The Neag School of Education is interested in incorporating it into the curriculum for honors students majoring in education.

Amy Osborne, an education major in her junior year, is working with science teacher Wayne Moshier to develop an environmental science mini-course for students at RHAM School in Hebron, who in turn want to develop a project for fourth graders.

She is excited that her involvement in the Comment program this semester and in the future may be accepted by the Neag School in lieu of an honors dissertation: "This is taking us out into the schools; it's hands-on experience."

The College Experience
Betsy McCoach, a Ph.D. student in gifted education, is helping a group of eight UConn honors students design a three-part seminar series for high school students on applying and making the transition to college. The students have met once a week since the fall to develop a curriculum and other activities, and gave their first seminar at Rockville High School in December.

McCoach says the UConn students have a special perspective on college planning to bring to the high schools. "College students have just been through the whole process, so they bring an authenticity to their talks," she says. "They may say the exact same thing as an adult but when they say it it's believable."

Tebbs and his colleagues hope Comment will enrich the college experience of the students participating. "This fits into our whole philosophy of building community spirit and serving the community at large, not just ourselves," Tebbs says. "It speaks to the all-round human being emerging from the university experience."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

The Comment program needs transportation for students to get to their mentoring sites. If you are able to help, please call (860) 486-0700.