In honor of January being National Mentoring Month, below is a spotlight of Viche’ Thomas, Summer Search Seattle’s School and Community Engagement Coordinator, who has kept our students at the heart of her work during the many changes of this past year.
Our mentors have always been dedicated to supporting our young people.
In 2020, facing the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice, Summer Search mentors (along with the rest of our staff) responded to the needs of our students with innovation, flexibility, and care -- partnering with Summer Searchers as they completed their school years, graduated, started new jobs, and more.
Beyond supporting the students already enrolled in Summer Search, each year we recruit and welcome a new class of high school sophomores. We call this Outreach Season, which begins in the fall and (under normal circumstances) involves our mentors visiting our partner high schools and introducing Summer Search to potential new students and their families.
Watch our 2020-2021 Outreach video for new students and families.
"School interaction -- that's what drew me to the role," explains Viche' Thomas, Summer Search Seattle's School and Community Engagement Coordinator. "In-school presentations, tabling at lunches, showing up at the career center and meeting with interested students, dropping off a document in person -- those are my favorite things to do."
Viche' joined the Seattle team in August 2019 to lead their new student outreach. "That (2019) was my first and last in-person season," she jokes.
As we now know, unfortunately in 2020, in-person recruitment was not going to be possible. So, Viche' and all Summer Search Outreach staff had to change course and move our student recruitment online, like the rest of our program.
Going Virtual -- Ups and Downs
Our mentors are working with our High School partners (the teachers and counselors who refer students to Summer Search) on a number of different approaches to online outreach in the 2020-2021 school year.
Summer Search Seattle students and mentors on a Zoom call.
In-person presentations were replaced with Zoom calls, documents were digitized and sent via email, and we improved the online application for more accessibility.
For the Zoom presentations, Viche' says they look different each time, depending on the school.
"Sometimes I can join an already-scheduled group meeting, other teachers let us jump into their virtual classrooms for short five-to-ten-minute presentations. I even joined a Sophomore Blitz where I presented every hour for 3 days straight to different groups and classrooms... it's a lot of screen time."
She adds, "I'm so comfortable talking to a bunch of black screens, now. Most of the time, the students don't have their cameras on."
Despite many students not being on camera, Viche' has been pleasantly surprised to see that they still are quite engaged via video chat.
"A lot of students ask questions... I always see three or four stay on the call longer to ask more and more (about Summer Search). Compared to in-person, students would be quieter, maybe it's a cool thing. But they are almost more engaged on video."
Video has also proved to be a helpful tool for families. Seattle ran a Virtual Family Night event, where students and their families got to meet the entire staff, via Zoom. "The parents really liked that, getting to know our program and to get a feel for it," Viche' explains.
A pre-recorded Outreach presentation, created by Darryl Soto, Summer Search Boston Mentor and Alumnus.
Additionally, most of the documentation is available in multiple languages, making that process more inclusive. Plus, with the Summer Search application available online and via mobile devices, it has been much more accessible for students and families, which has led to better completion rates, according to Viche'.
"At first, students were responding well, it was nice to see how many students didn't waste any time applying. We saw more completed applications than in past years... Those self-driven students who want it and need it, were on it."
Expanded Recruiting Pool
Despite these positive trends, it still has been challenging to reach the larger number of potential students as we usually can, in-person. As Viche' says, "You miss the 'just being at lunch' option to just get in front of more students."
To ensure we are capturing more students through this Outreach process, we expanded the nomination pool to include current students and alumni, along with other nonprofit partners -- so that Summer Searchers themselves could nominate potential new students.
Many sites got creative with this process, utilizing social media to share perspectives from current students about the benefits of joining Summer Search.
A testimonial on Summer Search Bay Area's Instagram on why sophomores should join Summer Search.
As new sophomores are joining, they are then paired with mentors and/or assigned to groups for our hybrid mentoring approach. While our staff and students have been incredibly flexible and resilient in adjusting to this "new normal" caused by COVID, it has still been difficult.
"It has been like waves," as Viche' describes it. "No one thought COVID would be this long. In the middle of last year, when quarantine really hit, we saw that some students thrived (at home) and some didn't. This winter feels really down. Students are missing school... and feeling like they're missing out on their high school experience. That’s been hard."
In looking for light at the end of the tunnel, Viche' likes to remind herself of a quote from one of her students, Judith, who put it simply: "Nothing is forever".
We're forever grateful to our mentors, like Viche', for all that they do to support our young people -- adapting to a new, virtual world while remaining steadfast in our ultimate goals. Leave a comment to say THANK YOU to our mentors! #NationalMentoringMonth
Summer Search Seattle staff at a student event in early 2020 (before COVID).