By Anthony Langley
A few years ago, Jeffrey Roberts (B.S.’87/E) and Gail Coles-Johnson (B.S.’86/B), members of VCU Alumni’s African-American Alumni Council, were looking for ways to create an intergenerational conversation between alumni and current students. But they weren’t sure of the best way they could go about it.
“When we were in undergrad, we didn’t have the opportunity to seek out mentors,” Roberts says. “So we wanted to create a way we could give back and students could pay it forward as well.”
During the AAAC’s inaugural Conversations and Cocktails events, Michelle Jones (B.S.’87/H&S) brought in a group of students to get their perspective on what the alumni group could do to help them as they neared graduation.
“I think that in order to create a pipeline of future AAAC members, relationship building and finding out what is valuable to students is the best way to go about it,” Jones says. “I mentor college students at my church; I know how valuable it is for them to have these experiences.”
The dialogue created during that meeting inspired Roberts and Coles-Johnson to found the AAAC’s Mentoring Circle. The program aims to connect students and alumni in a professional environment, which helps them gain the skills needed to enter today’s workplace environment and provide them an opportunity to learn from an alumnus as a mentee.
“This is the ultimate give-back,” Rodney Harry (B.S.’90/H&S), president of the AAAC, says. “It strengthens the bonds between alumni and students showing how prosperous we can be.”
The Mentoring Circle’s premier event is the alumni-student Mocktail party, a simulated networking event where students learn everything from how to approach a potential employer to whether they should eat or drink at catered events.
“Kevin M. Smith (B.S.’86/B) generously donated the funds needed to sponsor the event,” Roberts says. “He realized the worth of mentoring during his 25 years in the corporate world and wanted to help.”
The event begins with a presentation on the art and importance of networking, followed by an abbreviated version of the Myers-Briggs personality test, which helps to determine the best ways for introverts and extroverts to handle a networking situation.
“After the presentation, we put the students to the test,” Coles-Johnson says. “As soon as they enter the next room, they are in a networking event.”
After 15 minutes, time is called and the observers, who are trained prior to the event, are asked to give general observations about how the students conducted themselves. The floor is then opened for students to ask questions of alumni about areas in which they can improve. After that, they go back and start the event over.
At the end of the Mocktail event, the student mentees are matched with an alumnus who had a similar major or is in the career field the student would like to be in. He or she becomes their mentor for an entire year.
“I went in thinking that they’d just be conducting mock interviews; I had no idea I would leave with a mentor,” says Riqia Taylor, a rising junior majoring in African-American studies and the first recipient of the Coles-Johnson Mentoring Circle Scholarship. “I was able to connect with a phenomenal African-American woman who was an excellent role model.”
Taylor was matched with Nina Sims (B.S.’93/MC), who provided her with both educational and personal insights, from giving her the resources and advice she needed to decide on her major to supplying Taylor with volunteer and internship opportunities in the Richmond community and even inviting her to several family functions.
“She’s squeezing every drop of experience she can out of VCU, and it’s transforming her into an incredible communicator,” Sims says of Taylor. “She’s taught me so much, and I’m thrilled to learn that I have nurtured a new mentor who will continue the cycle.”
In their time together, Taylor mentored an after-school group at John Marshall High School that hoped to lead teen girls to identify issues in their community and tackle them through social change. Sims provided Taylor with community resources that could help expand and grow the program.
“During our year together she supported me through many life changes and made me feel loved,” Taylor says. “It would be an honor to be a mentor just like Mrs. Sims.”
Although the program is only in its second year, the Mentoring Circle has expanded immensely. The initial 10 students in the first cohort nearly quadrupled to 37 students in the second. Clif (B.S.’89/AHP) and Deborah (B.S.’87/H&S) Porter agreed to serve as the program’s co-managers moving forward and will provide leadership as the Mentoring Circle progresses to its third cohort.
“It grew much quicker than we anticipated, but we do this to help the students, not for ourselves,” Deborah says.
The husband-and-wife team coordinate the Mocktail party event and engage other alumni, match students to their mentors and plan all of the other Mentoring Circle events. They’re looking to create an event during the fall semester, which would give the mentors and mentees an opportunity to come together in between the Mocktail party and their end-of-the-program send-off event. The Roberts also plan to create an internship program with AAAC members that aligns with students’ career goals to give them professional training before they enter the world of work.
“The biggest thing we do is help students come to an accelerated realization that who they are and what they become isn’t defined by the things they studied in school,” Roberts says. “When the rubber meets the road, mentoring is what helps guide young men and women to where they want to be in life.”
Learn more about the Mentoring Circle and how you can volunteer to become a mentor online.