Consistency is easy to find at Bowdoin: in the chimes of the bells, the dinners served at 5 p.m. and parties every weekend. But for some children in the Brunswick area, a Bowdoin mentor’s presence each week is their only constant. When faced with parents in jail, a strange language in a foreign land, or shyness on the playground, kids depend on Bowdoin mentors’ support.
“We ask for a one school year commitment to give the [child] time to develop,” said Lindsey Walton, a program manager at Big Brothers, Big Sisters, one of 18 mentoring programs offered through the Bowdoin Volunteer Corps, at the McKeen Center for the Common Good. “Like any other relationship, it takes time to develop trust, and the best way to do that is to keep showing up and having conversations with them.”
Walton coordinates the Bears and Cubs program on campus for children not yet matched with a Big Brother or Big Sister. Every other Sunday, Bowdoin students spend two hours playing games and socializing with their “little.”
The experience is meant to provide a safe environment where kids can share their problems and interact with student mentors on a college campus.
“It’s interesting because you would think two hours every other week is not a lot of time, but kids have this crazy ability to be utterly hopeful and optimistic about everything, so it’s really easy to build trust quickly,” said Sara Caplan ’20, a Bears and Cubs mentor. “That little time you have really means a lot in terms of getting to know them and what’s happening in their lives. Often they reveal a lot of terrifying things.”
In addition to volunteering with Bears and Cubs this year, Caplan branched away from campus and began the Bowdoin Students Working with English Language Learners program (BSWELL) to work with local students who have been identified as eligible for the program by both their teachers and sub-proficiency scores on an English language exam.
The program’s 12 Bowdoin students will enter Brunswick classrooms for the first time to mentor nine students from around the world, including China, Germany, India, Portugal and Thailand.
One challenge Caplan foresees is the stark differences between the backgrounds and experiences of Bowdoin students and their mentees.
“One of the things that I found is that people look for similarities in their mentors and if they don’t see how who you are now can translate into what they could be … then it’s really hard to make that a tangible connection,” Caplan said.
Students also have the opportunity to mentor off campus with the program Falcon Friends. It caters to fifth graders at Bowdoinham Community School, providing each child with a Bowdoin mentor to spend time with during lunch and recess.
“The general goal is to come in and serve as positive role models,” said Lili Ramos ’18, the club’s leader. “We come in as college students who can talk to them and give them advice about social issues and school.”
In addition to providing mentees with stable relationships and student role models, mentor programs both on campus and in local schools offer Bowdoin students a great chance to explore volunteer opportunities.
“It’s a more comfortable way for [students] to explore this idea of community engagement,” said Assistant Director of The McKeen Center for Common Good Matt Gee. “Working with kids is a lot of fun and a lot of students use this as a way to destress and get off campus. It also gives students a chance to be leaders and role models, [giving] them a sense of duty and responsibility, an important empowering role for Bowdoin students to be in.”
For next year’s mentors and mentees, the name of the game is quality rather than quantity.
“[We’re] focusing on trying to deepen the relationships, having leaders provide more educational and reflection opportunities for the mentors in the program [and] helping the mentors be able to form deeper relationships and [have] a stronger impact on their students,” said Gee.
Editor’s note: Sara Caplan ’20 is a member of the Orient staff.