Summer Melt and Mentorship

I’m a high school dropout who somehow managed to graduate Summa Cum Laude in my undergrad and, eventually, earn a Master’s degree as well. Which only means I melted down for a good while before I ever got my “stuff” together and achieved some critical educational milestones. My meltdown was a bit different than the topic of this post, although there are some similar themes.

In contrast, summer melt is a term that refers to a phenomenon where, every year, many students who have overcome daunting obstacles in high school receive good news — they’ve been accepted to college, often with enough money awarded to attend, but they don’t show up to start classes. Sadly, for a percentage of students, they never achieve their educational dreams, even after all their hard work.

Summer Melt

As described in a recent Hidden Brain podcast I listened to: “These kids represent a success story: through hard work and determination, they’ve made it into college, and perhaps even on to a better life.

“The rate with which kids who are college (bound) do not actually get to college in the fall is surprisingly high,” says Lindsay Page, an education researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. “In one sample that we looked at in the Boston area, we find that upwards of 20% of kids who at the time of high school graduation say that they’re continuing on to college — about 20% of those kids don’t actually show up in the fall.””

As I absorbed the impact of this story, I have to admit it was another one of those times I teared up walking down the street.  I have a soft spot for these kids.  I was the first one to receive a college education among my siblings, parents (and grandparents.)

Like some of the summer melt kids, at that critical moment in high school, I did not have a strong enough and close enough network of mentors. Unlike them, I failed to understand the art of the possible and drive myself toward college acceptance during and immediately after high school.  The research says many of the summer melt kids apply for and gain grants and loans that fully fund them for school, whereas I initially had no idea that it was feasible to go to college purely on need-based financial aid.  While the summer melt kids achieved grades and test scores that got them accepted, my grades were horrible in high school.  Furthermore, instead of the confidence to stick it out, apply and get accepted, I let a myriad of self-doubt related problems prompt me to drop out.  It was only later that I found the right group of people to surround myself with.  With lots of encouragement and some additional awareness of the possibilities around things like GEDs and financial aid (and later help with my Master’s from Boeing) that I achieved what I did.  I did none of this alone, I had a whole lot of help.

My point is that, unlike these kids who did everything the way they were supposed to do it when they were supposed to do it,  it took me a great while to get my act together!  What troubles me so deeply is that these kids did it right, they worked hard in school, despite their family situations, persevered, received the right SAT scores, applied for the grants and scholarships and celebrated their acceptance into college only to fail to launch the summer after high school-why?

Education researchers point to several barriers, including the looming burden and flat out “sticker shock” of tuition fees as well as young students’ inability to navigate an unfamiliar and intricate college enrollment process without assistance.  As I listened to the podcast I was reminded how critical having the right network of people can be.  The week prior to listening, I helped my youngest son navigate his way through the paperwork and clerical pitfalls of enrolling in school.  I paid the fees that fell outside his scholarships. I provided advice and coaching on his enrollment choices. I was able to be there for him and my other two sons, unlike many of these kids’ parents, have the ability to be.

NCAN verification infographic
image from Scholarship Foundation of St Louis

This is precisely why we should form relationships with people outside our “bubble.” Sometimes these are ‘ready-made’ relationships that appear in our extended families, often we have to be more intentional and seek out those who do not have the experiences, networks, and resources that we or our children may have.

I am blessed with example after example of this in action in my community.  For instance, I work with a young lady that sits every week with an elementary school girl who needs mentorship.  I have seen her cry over the heartbreaking struggle this young person faces with her behavior and her family life. I have also seen my young friend laugh and rejoice at the small wins and breakthroughs her mentee makes.  Furthermore, I have the genuine honor of calling my friend, another woman closer to my age, who has a heart for kids like this, who sets a blazing example for all to see of how to love “the least of these” everywhere she goes.  She has a young man who thinks he is mowing her lawn for a modest fee while he is really getting the priceless gifts of love and mentorship.  She has a pair of young teen cousins she hangs with who emulate her heart for giving and serve at our community food truck, before taking food home to fill their own empty bellies and refrigerator.  This same person, in her “spare time,” cares for young women who have been hurt or abused in the worst ways, even after she has seen horrors in her own life that would make any of us shrink from any such responsibility.  Finally, just this past week, I was blessed to have a conversation with a married young man in his early 30s with the same such heart for kids like these.  I found myself humbled to hear his examples of outreach to young people, including one tale of being just one phone call away at all times from a young man who can’t seem to shake a terrible monkey off his back.  Watching these women I know in action and listening to this young man talk about how he and his wife have a heart for young people are all incredibly reassuring and it gives me immeasurable hope for the future.

If you are a believer like me, you understand that the hope we all need and the hearts of these inspiring mentors are fueled from a single source, God.  Whether you believe or not there is something I’d like you to take away and that is a lesson I learned from my faith, my pastor, Jenn Williams and Andy Stanley, which is to “do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.” You have within you the power to stop the “summer melt” of the next kid like me, or the lawn mowing kid, or the elementary school girl I mentioned above.  Although it would be awesome, you don’t have to show up in the middle of the night following a cry for help, or after a trailer fire like some of my heroes above have done. Maybe all you have to do is help someone fill out a FAFSA form?  You don’t need to sit every week at an elementary school with a kid and try to unteach her the things she is learning in her home life, maybe you just need to drive someone to the admissions office? Maybe it is as simple as words of encouragement that you can provide to a young person in your life? No matter what it looks like, we can all build someone up, it is simply a matter of daring to step into someone’s life, listen for what they need, and provide what you can.

I also know first hand this doesn’t always come out as we initially intended.  I have, on more than one occasion, provided help only to see it, let’s just say, “sub=optimized.”  That doesn’t mean any of us ought to stop trying!  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t find a way to start if you haven’t already.

What are you waiting for? Who is waiting for you?  I guarantee you this if you help someone avoid the melt, whatever that looks like for them, the only thing that is going to melt in you – is your heart.

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