Setting aCoursefor CollegeMentorship program between NMC, Blair seeks to reach first-generation studentsCAIDEN JOHNSON, IN HAT, AND HIS BLAIR CLASSMATES GET A TOUR INSIDE THE BUILDING FROM MCCUIEN, WHO TOLD THEM, “YOU BELONG HERE.” During a four-hour field trip to NMC’s campuses, Blair Elementary School fifth grader Caiden Johnson learned he could become a chef, a sailor, a carpenter, a welder, an electrician, a mechanic, or a nurse—and maybe even pay for it by playing video games, too.

Aside from scholarships for the varsity e-sports teams, seeing the variety of programs was what Johnson, 11, above left, liked most about the April field trip, exactly what organizers of the first-year mentorship program between NMC and Blair had hoped. By pairing each Blair fifth grader with a current NMC student, college enters the sights of the kids attending the school with some of the greatest socioeconomic challenges in Grand Traverse County.

“We have a lot of kids who are starting to dream big. Now they have to understand they need to work hard,” said Emily Witte, a Blair reading specialist who coordinates the program. “For our kids who come from generational poverty, going to college could change their lives.”

Thus the message instilled through the mentorship program, which began last October and culminated in the field trip, is that students can use education to set their own course.

“All you need to know is you’re interested in learning,” construction technology instructor Phil McCuien, above, center, told the Blair students as he led them around NMC’s Aero Park Labs, home of construction technology, welding technology and renewable energy technology programs. “The message is to plant a seed. This is your home. You belong here.”
“ We have a lot of kids who are starting to dream big. Now they have to understand they need to work hard . _ EMILY WITTE, BLAIR ELEMENTARY SCHOOLNMC STUDENT MENTOR CAYLA DRZEWIECKI AND BLAIR ELEMENTARY FIFTH GRADER CAIDEN JOHNSON PLAY CHESS IN ONE OF THEIR WEEKLY MEETINGS AT BLAIR.PHIL MCCUIEN, NMC CONSTRUCTION TECHNOLOGY INSTRUCTOR, LAST IN HAT, SHOWS BLAIR STUDENTS THE SOLAR PANELS AT THE AERO PARK LABS BUILDING ON A FIELD TRIP TO CAMPUS.The mentors come from NMC’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international community college honor society. PTK advisor Kari Kahler initially connected with Witte, whose daughter Hannah attended NMC, over a social media post requesting school supply donations. Kahler knew of other community college-elementary school mentorship programs created as paths for first generation college students. PTK students were game, and the idea aligns with the community partnerships area of NMC’s strategic plan.

Following training modeled on the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, mentors met weekly with the students at Blair. They found the rewards of the program were mutual.

“It was a cool opportunity to make a friend,” said Cayla Drzewiecki, 33, Caiden’s mentor.

“It’s really a growing experience for me,” said mentor Jesse Anders, 43.

Witte and Kahler are already planning for next year’s class of fifth graders. Some of the pioneer mentors also plan to stay in touch with their mentees. Anders hopes he can do so even though he plans to transfer to the University of Michigan and commute from Interlochen to Ann Arbor.

“It’s the longevity that matters,” he said.

Witte agreed, and said this first year has ignited a crucial spark. “If we build that fire now, it’s more sustainable.”