FSU students make an impact through Pelham Pals program

(Pelham Pals mentors make connections with mentees each week at FSU. Photo by Darian O'Donnell)

For Andrew Franquiz, a junior criminology major, 4:20 p.m. signifies that the most fulfilling part of his week is about to start.

At that time, Franquiz enters the college planning center and is greeted by the smiling faces of eight 10-to-14 year olds from the local Pelham Apartments recreation center, called Our House, who are excited to begin their weekly meeting.

Franquiz is one of a handful of student volunteers at FSU who partake in the Pelham Pals program offered through the Center for Academic Success and Advising (CASA) every Monday afternoon.

As a program mentor, along with five other volunteers, Franquiz is planting seeds in the minds of the Pelham students. With personalized mentoring, homework help and positive reinforcement, these seeds will blossom into dreams of higher education for the students; some who never imagined college would be part of their future.

The Pelham Pals program at Framingham State University was created in April 2013 by Director Emily Abel, coordinator of Program Leading to Undergraduate Success (PLUS) and academic advisor.

Abel can vividly recall the high school students who inspired her to start the Pelham Pals program, which is aimed at middle school students.

“A lot of the students that are in this subsidized housing development, they would say to me, ‘Emily, by [high school], it’s too late.’ A lot of them have already made the choices they are going to make. They are not college bound,” said Abel. “We need to reach these students earlier.”

Since its conception, the program has undergone many changes, including longer sessions and inclusion of more Pelham children, but the impact on the young students is still exactly the same.

The students in the program all face challenges in their lives that are specific to them. These challenges include increased responsibility, language barriers, lack of access to technology and various academic pressures, said FSU alumna Michelle McGonagle, Massachusetts campus compact AmeriCorps VISTA.

Despite their life challenges, the Pelham children also face one common barrier to higher education: all of them will be first-generation college students.

“It’s a bigger obstacle than it sounds,” said Abel. “We don’t realize how many misconceptions younger students have, especially who don’t come from college-going families, about who goes to college.”

As the directors and student volunteers have learned, the best way to lead the children is by example.

“Being a first-generation student, I feel like that helps me connect with them,” said Franquiz. “I’m trying to do well in academics. I also work full-time … Hopefully, by them being able to see that, they have hope that they can do that, too.”

Pelham Pals Mentors like Franquiz are not just inspiring dreams of higher education in the Pelham students – they are also creating positive and lasting relationships.

“I tell our mentors, ‘These kids are going to remember you for the rest of your lives,’” said Abel. “You may think, ‘Oh, I’m just helping with a math problem,’ or ‘I’m just playing ping pong with you for ten minutes,’ but that’s pretty special.”

Abel added, “I know as a young person that would have meant the world to me.”

McGonagle has also noticed the effect these relationships have on the students from Pelham.

“Just sitting down and having someone focused on you I think gives you a little more confidence,” said McGonagle. “You go to this computer, you’re sitting together, it just reaffirms that you are special, you are worthy, you are smart.”

This level of individualized mentoring, also creates a community for the children outside of their schools and homes.

“They like to know we’re there to help them. We’re not judgmental and we are there for them,” said Franquiz. “It’s like a huge support system and a huge safe space for them to be themselves and be able to be productive without any distractions.”

Despite the challenges these students face, the Pelham Pals program offers them a safe, judgement-free space.

“For an hour and a half during the day, they are able to come in,” said McGonagle. “They can just come. They can be kids. They can have fun.”

Although the Pelham program may never exceed 15 volunteers due to transportation constraints at Our House, there are and will continue to be mentoring positions available to students, said Abel.

“The ultimate goal is to have every kid go to school, and every kid to live the American Dream.” said Franquiz, “[The mentors] try to plant that seed and hopefully build a garden.”

[Editor’s Note: Brittany Cormier is an Associate Editor at The Gatepost.]