A teacher, engineer and computer scientist on mentoring next-gen STEM stars

By: Kenrya Rankin

Former mentors in Verizon Innovative Learning’s Young Men of Color program on the importance of supporting future leaders

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Mentors Damien Burks, Brandon Harris and Shyriq’ McShan talk about the impact of Verizon Innovative Learning’s Young Men of Color program.

Since 2015, Verizon Innovative Learning has provided extracurricular STEM enrichment project-based learning experiences to students from under-resourced middle schools across the nation. It’s part of Citizen Verizon, the company’s responsible business plan for economic, environmental and social advancement. Through partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and community colleges, the Young Men of Color program inspires students to reach their full potential and uses next-generation curriculum to help them envision — and make real — life-changing, tech-driven careers. In fact, 98% of students who have participated in the Young Men of Color program say it increased their interest in STEM (SRI, 2019).

Some partner schools have long integrated mentorship into their programming. However, in 2019, Verizon Innovative Learning formalized that component, piloting a mentoring program at 11 of the schools in the Young Men of Color program and its counterpart, the Young Rural Women program. For the entire academic year, 22 mentors tapped Verizon’s professional development resources to form meaningful connections with 200 mentees. For 2021, the mentoring component expands to all 49 schools in the program, matching all students, approximately 4,900 of them with mentors. All locations will also include high school mentors, providing a pathway to empower students who thrived in the middle school-led program with an opportunity to hone their leadership skills.

We brought together three former mentors of the Young Men of Color program to discuss the impact of the initiative. Damien Burks, a Verizon security software engineer and mentor at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, is deeply committed to mentoring the next generation of STEM stars. “You develop one person, another person builds the next person and so on. It makes the world a better place to live,” he says.

For Brandon Harris, it’s personal. He found his life’s calling after volunteering. “Mentoring in this program has led me to become a teacher. Watching that light bulb come on in their minds; I can't even describe how rewarding it was,” says the science teacher, who mentored at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Students don’t care what you know until they know how much you care. The Verizon Innovative Learning program has taught me how to show students that I care.”

Petersburg, Virginia-based computer scientist Shyriq’ McShan is struck by how the experience impacted participants. He’s not alone; 87.5% of mentors in the Young Men of Color and Rural Young Women programs have observed positive changes in their mentees’ knowledge, skills or experience. “The students made me feel that I was making an impact with every student, every single day,” says McShan, who volunteered at his alma mater, Virginia State University. “Being able to see them grow — as scientists, computer scientists, as men — was absolutely lovely. I think all of those kids are gonna grow up to be outstanding.”

Watch and learn how Verizon Innovative Learning’s Young Men of Color program helps students connect to STEM — and to their own bright futures.

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