For some people, the idea of meeting with a student every week is an overwhelming commitment that they can’t imagine fulfilling. For others, mentoring is something to squeeze in if you have time every now and then. Each summer, after all of the visit hours have been submitted, I start to wonder if we’re asking too much, if it’s even possible to reach the standard we expect from our mentors – to support and encourage one student once a week for one hour for one school year.
But then I think of Lara Foronda and Robert Ontiverdes and I know it is possible. Lara is a full time employee at the Texas Water Development Board. Robert is a 2009 graduate of McCallum High School who is attending Texas State University this fall. They have been working together for eight years.
Lara: Every year since the 5th grade, pretty much. Once a week for an hour.
Robert: Once a week, every week. For the entire year. For eight years.
Robert puts a heavy emphasis on “every” and they both laugh.
Lara: Except for summers!
Robert and Lara met during the 2001-2002 school year at Reilly Elementary, where Robert had transferred from Ridgetop Elementary. Since then they have transitioned from Reilly to Webb Middle School to Lamar Middle School to Lanier High School and finally landed at McCallum.
Lara: Stability, I think, is what I was trying to have for him. He’s been through so many schools that I was like okay, there’s going to be something constant when he goes to school. Someone to help him and let him know “you’re doing fine, we’ll make the transition easy, and then you’re going to do great.” Transitioning to high school, I think, that was the hardest for me. Lara laughs and looks at Robert. Then I realized you were growing up!
Lara was recruited as a mentor for the Texas Youth Commission and eventually joined Austin Partners in Education.
Lara: Well, I was looking for a volunteer opportunity back then, something where I could make an impact with any student within the school district. I didn’t realize it was going to be with the same student for eight years! But it made an amazing impact on me actually. I don’t know about him but for me for sure! It’s been a learning experience; it’s been really wonderful.
Robert shakes his head in agreement.
For Robert, finding out that he was going to be mentored filled him with questions.
Robert: Oh, I was wondering what she was going to be like. What is it going to be like? What is she going to teach me? All of these things. What is she going to guide me through? And now I know what she’s done and because of her, I’ve gotten this far.
As you would expect, Lara has seen many changes in Robert over the last eight years.
Lara: Okay, when we first started I was taller than him and now he’s taller than me! And I’ve just seen him grow from talking just a little bit to blossoming and doing student government, cross country team.. and I mean it just blows me away. And then getting into four out of five universities! I only applied to one! So it’s just been an amazing journey, and he’s accomplished so much. There are a lot of milestones that he’s gone through.
What has Robert seen change in Lara since he met her? Her hair styles!
Robert: Since I met her, she’s helped me so much. I guess as we’ve progressed, she’s helped me more. She’s been more helpful, more open minded, I guess. So she has evolved also.. in a good way.
Besides being recognized as a Mentor of the Year during the 2007-2008 school year, Lara is a part of an elite club at Austin Partners in Education. While many mentors return for a second year, we only have 13 people on record as mentoring for at least 8 years. Of those, only a handful are still mentoring the same student. How has Lara made the commitment that so many others have found so daunting?
Lara: Well, one thing is that it only takes an hour out of your lunch time. So one day a week during the school year is not that much. Especially if you can find a school that is close to where you work, then it’s really not that much of a sacrifice, I think. And I’ve been doing it for eight years, so it’s just a normal thing that I want to do. And I just have to remember that on Tuesdays I have to work around our meeting. I look forward to seeing him – finding out what’s going on with his week, what are his issues, what does he need to work on, what teachers do we need to talk to. It’s a great opportunity to meet someone and share your knowledge, you know, and bring that to someone who will definitely use it – hopefully for the best! Robert assures her with a smile.
One thing that makes Lara and Robert’s relationship so exceptional is in light of the struggle that schools have faced in the last year with recruiting students to participate in the mentor program. We’ve seen this to be especially difficult in high school. While Robert definitely understands the benefits of having a mentor, he also sees why some students might be resistant.
Robert: I think anybody can use a mentor. But I think if you want to get a mentor, you should get one because you want to learn or you need help and you’re willing to get that help. If you want to have someone to talk to about anything, I think a mentor is something you should consider… It really has helped and I would tell (the students) that it will help a lot with the college process. Your mentor thinks through what you need to do, tests you need to take, how you should go about applying to college, how you should prepare beforehand by passing your classes, taking pre-AP classes. But a lot of high school students do think it’s weird to have a mentor, so I would recommend that they get a mentor earlier on, like in elementary or maybe middle school, so that your mentor can be with you all the way to the end.
Lara: I agree, because just from what I’ve seen, I wish I had someone to tell me “okay, your sophomore year you need to buckle it up and really start studying.” I just had my parents. And honestly it was just like “okay, yeah, whatever”. But if I had someone that I trusted and looked up to as my mentor, I think I would have done more with the guidance that came from someone other than my teachers.
When I asked Robert and Lara for some of their favorite memories, they both took a moment to think. There wasn’t one particular experience or incident that really stood out for them because each week their discussions were meaningful and significant.
Robert: All the funny stories and experiences. Every week, she brings something new to the table – something that happened or is going to happen. Or I’ll tell her something that happened to me and we always have laughs about it. We’re not all serious about it. We try to make the best out of our conversations.
Lara: Definitely. I think what’s really important is that we talk about school and then we talk about family life. But it’s all focused on him to make sure that he is guided to where he wants to be. Sometimes I’ll talk about myself just a little bit, but it’s more about his real life experiences. We talk about what’s right and wrong. So I can tell him that you need to make your own decisions, but this is how I think about things. Lately it’s been about colleges, and Prom.
They both laugh and shoot each other a glance. I think back to my senior Prom and imagine they had quite a bit to discuss at their last meeting.
Lara: But more than anything it was about making sure he graduates and gets into a university and gets a scholarship – which he has funded his entire freshman year. I think that’s probably the biggest thing.
Robert: And she really helped me out there, because I’m a first generation college student so I’ve learned some things through school but school doesn’t teach you everything. They expect your parents to already teach you, but my parents didn’t go to college so I can’t just ask them what I should do. And I think that’s where Lara came in a lot and she helped me know how to get into college and how to prepare… She’s helped me a lot with college stuff. If I don’t know something, I’ll ask her and she’ll tell me “oh, undergraduate admissions is blank” or “you have to take your SAT” or “do this or that”. She helps me a lot.
Like most incoming freshmen, Robert is already changing his mind about the career path he might choose. Before our interview, Lara told me that he had decided to be a teacher. At the end of our interview, as Robert was telling me about his interests changing from architecture to law then to education, he said that he might not want to be a teacher after all. He’s thinking of becoming a professor. This was news to Lara, but as she said she always encourages Robert to “Think Big!”
As I packed up and walked out of the library, I could hear Lara getting down to the first task at hand – is everything ready for graduation? A week later, I received a photo of Lara proudly standing next to Robert in his cap and gown. Now that it’s a few weeks into the school year at Texas State, I can’t help but wonder how Robert’s journey is progressing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called Lara with exciting news and even more questions. Lara is getting ready to start her second match in 9 years with a little girl at Lee Elementary. I hope she knows just how lucky she is to be matched with Lara this year and I can’t wait to see how this new match unfolds.