Importance of mentorship programs for rural youth

Most days when I’m at Tech, I typically get annoyed with a few recurring scenarios on campus. The flippant pedestrians who seem to cross streets without any regard for the drivers. Then there’s the Tech Trolley drivers who will kick you off the bus when you can’t cram behind that oddly-configured yellow line. Finally, there’s the random group of boisterous school kids on campus who couldn’t care less for those students who just want relative serenity around them.

This last point seems rather moot, however, as this past weekend, I had the genuine pleasure of taking a group of six high school freshmen on a tour of Tech’s campus as part of GTRI’s second annual STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Mentorship Program. The program pairs Tech students with a group of kids that are working on a STEM-related project for the duration of one semester.

The kids in this program are from a town in northern Georgia just south of Chattanooga. Coupled with their heavy Southern accents, I was immediately transported to my own high school days upon interacting with them. And once I really made this connection, I realized just how invaluable this program is.

The reason why this program can have such an impact in rural areas is one that I’ve been on the end of. Going to high school in rural Georgia, the math and science education system was generally lacking in breadth and depth. Limited opportunities in these STEM areas and a largely lopsided emphasis on, for me, the irrelevant social sciences created an environment where the country’s necessary engineers, mathematicians, and scientists could not be fostered well. Had fourth-year Sam at Tech been able to relay messages to the much chubbier high school Sam, he would emphasize the need to learn a programming language as soon as possible.

I feel that my success at Tech could have been bigger and more substantial had I followed this one simple piece of advice. However, this really is just one deficiency that I’ve faced among a sea of others that many rural graduates who matriculate into larger engineering institutions have undergone.

And this is where the STEM Mentorship program comes in play. Giving these kids, who generally don’t have the same math or science exposure—both culturally from their society and educationally from their schools—a person who exposes the diversity and applications of math and science at a higher caliber level is quintessential to alleviating some of the scarcity in STEM education in these locations.

Some people may regard STEM as simply a buzzword. But statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that only 16 percent of high school graduates are interested in a STEM career, which seems rather low for a job field where the number of employment opportunities (and in some cases, employment needs) is expected to rise by 20-50 percent in various disciplines over the course of the decade. STEM is not simply an initiative; it is a movement that seeks to improve the American society. Want better transportation across Atlanta? Want cheaper medical devices? Increasing competition by increasing the number of offerings for these tasks can help reduce the price for these example scenarios and contribute to generally improving our society, infrastructure, and quality of life.

As Tech students, we are fortunate to be at such a high-caliber institution that helps to instill both insight into the needs to be successful as a scientist or engineer and the resources to help others do the same. In fact, I’ll assume a preachy role here and burden fellow students with the onus of reaching out to communities and helping spur greater interest in science and engineering.

I’ll also ask that, the next time anyone gets annoyed by a rowdy group of high school kids at Tech, the person take a deep breath and know that it’s for the betterment for everyone—you included.


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