Written by Ron Wagner

Cultivating distinctive lives Mentoring middle school students

Cultivating distinctive lives Mentoring middle school students by Ron Wagner

Story by Ron Wagner ’93
Photography by Jeremy Fleming ’08

Fate matched Sheronda Witter ’08 and Beck Academy Middle School.

In Spring 2005, Witter told Nancy Cooper, Furman’s coordinator for volunteer services, that she wanted to help out. But she didn’t know where to focus her energy. Coincidentally, educators at Beck Academy Middle School in Greenville had recently approached Cooper. Many of Beck’s female students lacked positive role models. And they wanted to know if Furman could help.

A lifetime overachiever also in the midst of designing her own major (intercultural youth development), Witter knew she wouldn’t  be content doing a little tutoring on the side. What she didn’t know was she would spend the next three years designing and implementing what Ladies of Distinction, a mentoring program for middle-school girls that stands, 10 years later, as one of Heller’s most iconic contributions to the Greenville community.

I thought the hardest part was going to be finding people at Furman who were interested, but that turned out to be easy. Brandon Tensley '12

Five girls showed up the first day, and by the end of the year there were more than 40. A decade later, Ladies of Distinction (LOD) is still going strong, as is Men of Distinction, its brother program started in 2010 by Brandon Tensley ’12.

“The teachers were in our corner a hundred percent,” Tensley, currently a Luce Scholar working as a journalist in Thailand, said. “I thought the hardest part was going to be finding people at Furman who were interested, but that turned out to be easy.”

Men of Distinction (MOD) seeks to “foster an environment of achievement, integrity, and leadership.” Students learn things as simple as table manners and chivalry, but Tensley, an African American who grew up in Columbia, also felt it was important to show young people the accomplishments of people who shared their skin color.

Tensley, who was awarded degrees in German and political science from Furman before earning a Master of Philosophy of Politics from Oxford as a Fulbright scholar, said. “I never had black foreign language teachers, and I didn’t see black students traveling abroad like a lot of my white peers…there’s a lot to be said for being able to break that barrier and identify with somebody, even on that superficial level.”

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Both programs now focus on Berea Middle School, and though some things have changed, the commitment to being a consistent presence hasn’t. If anything, that has become a renewed focus under current MOD leader Sam McCoy ’17, a chemistry major from Wichita, KS.

“We’re working to make sure the young men understand that our presence is not just on Fridays after school,” McCoy said.

Jose Pacheco is a freshman at Greenville High who went through Men of Distinction. He says it changed his life.

“They’re not just mentors, they’re also friends,” he said. “They helped me with personal problems and were there for me under any circumstances.”

We're working to make sure the young men understand that our presence is not just on Fridays after school. Sam McCoy, MOD Leader

Jocelyn Bouleware ’17 currently co-coordinates LOD with Erica Williams ’17. She says growing up surrounded by poverty in Chester gives her a valuable perspective.

“I have great parents and a well-traveled and educated family, but my peers at school didn’t have that,” she said. “These girls don’t see themselves as people who are worthy of love and self-respect.”

Witter now works for North Carolina State University as a 4H agent in Orange County as she pursues her Ph.D. in education research and policy analysis. Her career trajectory got its start that summer she spent designing LOD from scratch, unsure if anyone would care in two months much less in 10 years.

She is happy, to say the least, they did and do.