The high school transition can be challenging for freshmen. Learning a new building, a new school culture, making friends, and adjusting to academics can be intimidating. At Westhill High School in Stamford, the Future Forward Friends peer-to-peer mentoring program aims to support freshmen by providing resources and encouragement to help them navigate their first year of high school.
RISE’s Khanisha Moore works at Westhill as a Senior On-Track Coach (OTC). OTCs are youth development professionals who serve as advocates for a targeted caseload of up to 60 Grade 9 students, for whom they provide deep and sustained support. In the 2021-22 school year, Moore started the Future Forward Friends (F3) program, which is open to all students on an OTC caseload who are either off-track or almost on-track to promote to Grade 10 on time. These students meet regularly in Moore’s classroom with upperclassmen in good standing who volunteer their free periods to provide guidance, which can take the form of tutoring in specific coursework or serving as a general resource.
Student mentors provide advice on specific, tangible action steps that their mentees can take to get themselves on-track. For example, mentors might share tips on how to email a school counselor, form plans for how to make up missed homework, or provide ideas like finding a study partner or scheduling dedicated time in the library. Currently, two upperclassmen who speak Creole are mentoring two 9th-graders from Haiti, in their native language. Such support is invaluable for these students, who are thankful to have help from peers who understand the challenges they face.
“Before I had a mentor, it was pretty rough, because I was new to high school,” said Mya-Syrae Reid, a student at Westhill. “I was having trouble doing some things, but when I got my mentor, she helped me a lot with succeeding.”
Through F3, Mya was paired up with student mentor Tatyana Fields. According to Tatyana, “I wanted to become a mentor because in my freshman year I didn’t have any help when I was struggling. So I figured, why not help the incoming freshmen and make a change?”
When asked about how Tatyana helped her, Mya recalled “She helped me in some classes I didn’t understand, algebra being one of them. She put it through my head that if I didn’t get better grades then I would stay a freshman, and I didn’t want that to happen.” Beyond academics, Tatyana provided a consistent support system for Mya on a social-emotional level. “I feel like she helped me mentally, having someone to look up to, because I didn’t really have a lot of people,” Mya said. “She motivated me and had a positive impact on my freshman experience.”
From Tatyana’s perspective, participating in the program as a mentor was highly rewarding. “When I got my mentee, she was shy but we were able to create a bond,” she said. “She told me she was struggling so I gave her some motivation and words of encouragement. I told her that grades don’t define who she is as a person, but it is important to make sure that she tries.”
Following her experience as a mentee in the F3 program, Mya, now in Grade 10 at Westhill, felt compelled to become a peer mentor herself. “I wanted to be a mentor this year because these kids coming into high school, I want to see them succeed,” she said. “I feel I can help them as a mentor by giving them the ropes of freshman year, because it’s pretty hard, and I want to see my mentee succeed so they can see their graduation.”
Ultimately, this is the goal for every RISE Network student; to ensure that they have the support they need to stay on-track and graduate on time.
And it is inspiring to see former student mentees step up and become mentors, helping their peers fulfill this goal. “It’s to the point where the kids who have been mentored are excited to mentor other students when they get the opportunity,” said Moore. “They have waited so long to be that mentor, that helping friend.”