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mentoring program
De’Ara Purdie’s mentor, Chris Simmons, not only met with her monthly for two years during high school, she also checked in with her regularly during her first semester at college. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

RICHMOND, Va. — When De’Ara Purdie arrived at Longwood University in Virginia for freshman orientation, she was in culture shock, but she wasn’t blindsided. Her mentors had prepared her for the different world she was about to enter.

“I’m from a big city,” says Purdie, 19, sitting slumped and smiling in a grey sweatshirt just a few days after returning from her first semester in Farmville. “The college is just one circle, and if you go outside the circle, there are just farms all around. Like, cows and horses. It was stressful.”

Purdie actually likes animals – she wants to be a veterinarian – but she was used to urban life and learning alongside people from a similar background. Purdie’s alma mater, George Wythe High School in Richmond, is 95 percent black and Latino, and Longwood is more than three-quarters white.

Only 11 percent of low-income first-generation college students earn a bachelor’s degree within 6 years.

But she said the biggest change, for which her mentors from the giant accounting firm EY (formerly known as Ernst & Young) had prepared her, was the difference between what it took to succeed in college compared to high school.

“I never had any kind of study plan in high school. I just did all my homework during class,” says Purdie, who lives with her mom, her older sister, younger brother and 3-year-old niece when she’s not at college. “The mentors were like, ‘When you go, you have to make sure your priorities are in check; you have to set aside time to study, because it’s no joke.’”

According to EY, Purdie is one of 1,100 low-income students who have taken part in its mentoring program. Started in 2009, the program’s goal is to chip away at the stubborn gap between the number of college degrees earned by low-income students and by their wealthier peers. The hope is that the extra support will be enough to push low-income students over the hump to apply, enroll and graduate. Research shows that mentorships, when done right, can have a positive impact on children’s lives.

Related: The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast

In the U.S., about one-third of EY’s roughly 41,000 employees were first-generation college students, including several partners and a chief operating officer, and the mentoring program was born out of a desire to open doors for a new generation. Company officials are aware of the fact that only 11 percent of low-income first-generation college students earn a bachelor’s degree within 6 years, according to the Pell Institute.

EY’s program provides employees as mentors who, as a group, lead monthly meetings aimed at preparing students for college. Topics range from applying for scholarships to how to take notes in a college lecture hall to setting realistic goals.

One mentor, J Grimes, now an assurance senior (EY’s term for an auditor) in the company’s financial services office, was the first in his family to go to college and said the process was overwhelming.

“I had a mentor my junior and senior year in high school who kind of saved my life,” says Grimes, 26, who graduated from Virginia Tech. “My parents definitely wanted to help me, but they just didn’t know how. I kind of want to be that same guiding light for someone, hopefully.”

He says that young people need to have people with whom they can relate who are pursuing a variety of career goals.

mentoring program
J Grimes hopes that he can help make a difference in high school students’ lives, like a mentor did for him. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

“The students were so shocked at how down to earth I am. It’s like yeah, I have a good job, but you can do it too,” Grimes says. “They want to be helped, but once they are intimidated or scared, they lose that drive.”

Related: New supports for first-gen students: helpful or just ‘a drop in the bucket?’

EY’s group-mentoring model is set up on the premise that accounting employees, who have crunch times during parts of the year and sometimes have to travel extensively to meet with clients, won’t be able to make every session. The group model allows employees to be involved even if they can’t make every meeting. The mentors and students meet as a group once a month, usually during the day at the students’ high school, and a couple times a year at the corporate headquarters.

According to EY, the program, known as College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence), started in nine locations and has spread to 30 cities, with a goal of expanding to 35 by 2018. More than 1,175 EY employees have taken part in College MAP so far. And EY says that 90 percent of the program’s scholars last year graduated from high school (in May or June 2015) and went on to college.

Chris Simmons helped bring the program to Richmond two years ago, and Purdie says Simmons was her “most persistent mentor,” texting her while she was at college to check in and calling her the day after she got home.

“She loves animals, and I love dogs so we bonded,” says Simmons, a creative design manager who was the first in her family to go to college.

“I wanted to see a more diverse group of employees in client services, and then I learned that they aren’t in the colleges, and that’s why they weren’t here,” says Simmons, who has worked at EY in Richmond for 15 years. “When we got the program we were ecstatic.”

“Once a month isn’t going to make the difference, but hopefully it can lead to relationships that can.”

EY reports that Richmond’s first group began with 18 students. Eight made it all the way through the program to high school graduation. Of those, five are enrolled in college, one is planning to enroll in January, and one wants to go after a stint in the Army Reserve.

Each of the students who went to college received a laptop, some scholarship assistance and membership in the “persistence program,” which offers a $250 stipend to students who participate in three conference calls per semester. They also will have a group dinner after the holidays, before the students head back to college.

“Our goal is not only for them to go to college but to graduate, as well,” said Nate Liberati, who runs Richmond’s persistence program and is a senior manager in advisory services at EY. The firm is also going to begin offering entry-level jobs to College MAP graduates.

Related: Why mentors need to stop trying to fix black and brown students

Richmond’s new group includes 27 high school juniors and 29 employee mentors. On a warm day in December, they sat in a conference room at the company’s headquarters. One of the mentors walked the students through a slide presentation on setting goals. The students broke into small groups, each led by an employee, and discussed what made a goal good or bad. Later, as the students ate lunch, another employee went through the mechanics of making a resume. The students again broke into small groups to work on resume-writing before they boarded the school bus and headed back to school.

“I wasn’t too sure about being part of it, but after the first meeting I really liked it and I thought it would help me,” says S’Rondae Redd, 17, who has two older sisters who haven’t gone to college. “I want to be the first in my family to go to college. I want to be successful in life.”

“I wanted to see a more diverse group of employees in client services, and then I learned that they aren’t in the colleges, and that’s why they weren’t here.”

Gary Belske, EY Americas senior vice chair and chief operating officer of Ernst & Young LLP, worked a night shift stocking shelves at a grocery store while attending Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. His mother was a cashier at Kmart and his dad was a meat cutter at Kroger, and he has taken a personal interest in the mentoring program.

“I think it gives students a venue and mentor to talk through things that, frankly, I didn’t have,” Belske says. “Mentoring is really about confidence. They’re really bright kids, sometimes they just need the confidence that they can be successful.”

Several of the employee mentors acknowledged that meeting once a month with students who have large odds stacked against them might not be enough on its own, but they said they believed it could begin the process.

“Once a month isn’t going to make the difference,” says Grimes, “but hopefully it can lead to relationships that can.”

This story was written by Meredith Kolodner and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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