University of Rochester

Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

‘Pillars of Hope’ offers support for city students
By Jeanette Colby
According to the dictionary, “pillars” are either structures offering freestanding vertical support or individuals with central or great responsibility. But for one group of African-American professionals from across the University, both definitions apply. Once a month during the academic year, these “Pillars of Hope” meet with some 60 students at Rochester’s School No. 41 to offer educational support and an example of success for urban students.
Pillars of Hope

Pillar volunteers from left, Damian Garcia, College admissions counselor; Terrance Liverpool, Simon School M.B.A. candidate; Deborah Harris, registered nurse, Strong Ties; Kareem Hayes, academic advisor, McNair Program; Judie Myers-Gell, senior human resources representative, Multicultural Affairs and Inclusion; Tobias Simpson, information analyst, University Facilities and Services; Deborah McDell-Hernandez, coordinator of community programs and
outreach, Memorial Art Gallery; and Gary Whidbee, regional director, Office of Advancement.

The University group is part of the citywide Pillars of Hope program, an initiative of the City of Rochester’s Bureau of Youth Services that recruits African-American professionals to serve as role models for students and to share personal stories of overcoming obstacles in their lives.
“We share a part of our journey—the experiences that have made us what we are and ultimately contributed to our career successes,” explains Dena Phillips Swanson, assistant professor at the Warner School and one of the Pillar volunteers. Swanson, whose research focuses on minority youth, is particularly interested in the program because of personal challenges she faced while growing up. “These experiences could have placed me on a very different and negative trajectory,” a trajectory, she says, many of her peers took and one that is not uncommon among urban youth today.
The University group, which includes individuals from the Medical Center, the River Campus and the Memorial Art Gallery, was recruited by Judie Myers-Gell, senior human resources representative in the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Inclusion. The team officially began participating in the program in January 2008, when they first met their middle school students at School No. 41. Each month since, a program has been organized by a member of the team, while the other volunteers are there to be a support to each other and the students.
In March, Damian Garcia, College admissions counselor, organized a field trip for the students to the River Campus that included a scavenger hunt and an opportunity for students to get a peek at what life is like on campus. On that day, Swanson gave a PowerPoint presentation that illustrated the meaning behind the word “pillar” and pointed out that one day, they too, could be a source of support for others.
“I find that the students have many questions about what it takes to prepare for college and what it takes to pay for college. What they have to do in the interim is to prepare for college. We are instrumental in answering their questions in addition to providing feedback on setting and achieving goals, despite the obstacles they encounter,” says Swanson.
The volunteers address many of the problems that plague students, including bullying, peer pressure, and low self-esteem.
“Many of these students have a lack of exposure to adults with career backgrounds,” says Jackie Campbell, director of the city’s Bureau of Youth Services. Campbell notes that the program is much more powerful when the interaction with students is with an organization as opposed to an individual.
“It makes a big statement when a group of professionals walk into their school with the same professional attire,” says Campbell. The University Pillars have made it a point to wear Rochester blue and dandelion yellow to symbolize their professional connection to the College.
In addition to benefits to students, Myers-Gell credits the Pillars program with helping the University as well. “In essence, we are feeding [future minority students and employees to] the University by building a pipeline,” she notes.  
For more information, or to volunteer for the Pillars program, contact Judie Myers-Gell at 257-2200 or judie.myers-gell  

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