Service learning project pairs JU mentors with local youth

January 23, 2024

For more than a decade, approximately 300 students from Jacksonville University have mentored local youth from Communities in Schools of Jacksonville (CIS) as part of a service-learning requirement for JU’s Media and Crime class. The course, taught by Assistant Professor of Sociology Shelley Grant, encourages students to examine how the media impacts their perceptions of the criminal justice system, including how they see at-risk and delinquent youth.

The students in the class mentor local youth at Terry Parker High School and Arlington Middle School. Their mentees have been identified as at-risk for dropping out, a statistic that has a direct link to delinquency. CIS case managers work with them in the classroom to empower them to graduate, connecting them to critical services such as mental health counseling and tutoring.

The mentorship program is coordinated by CIS staff, who train the JU students and schedule their weekly visits. The semester-long project wraps with the CIS mentees taking a field trip JU to meet their mentors on campus, giving them the opportunity to envision an academic future that includes higher ed. After a walking tour of campus, they fill out an application for a $1,000 scholarship and enjoy lunch on the Science Green. The group then breaks for the middle- and high-schoolers to spend final one-on-one time with their mentors.

This year, when a bus issue prevented the CIS students from coming to campus, Grant’s students took matters into their own hands. They all hopped in their cars and drove to Terry Parker and Arlington to spend time with their mentees.

“I was just so proud of them,” shared Grant. “It wasn’t just a few. Almost everybody went.”

Chris Lotito with menteeThe impact the service-learning project leaves on JU students, like Chris Lotito ’24, is profound and lasting. “This program has inspired me to do more with kids, specifically at-risk youth who need a caring adult in their life,” stated Lotito, also a member of the JU baseball team. “I plan to continue to see my mentor this coming semester and do something in the future with helping at risk youth as well.”

Like Lotito, many of Grant’s students continue to serve as mentors after the course ends.

“While some of my students are nervous about the service-learning component at first, they quickly embrace the opportunity to be the caring adult and role model their mentees need, I have had many students continue to work with CIS after the semester ends through continuation of mentoring, independent studies, and internships,” she said.

Madeline Weiler ’26 shared how the mentorship program has inspired her to continue exploring the connections between academia and service. “I had never been a mentor before, and it was super fulfilling to see the impact you can have on someone by simply just showing up and talking with them. I grew tremendously as a person and as a peer and the experience has even motivated me to get a service-learning certificate.”  

The mentorship has also made a significant impression on the CIS mentees. Some have gone on to enroll at Jacksonville University after graduating high school, encouraged by their experience with their JU mentors. One former mentee even landed in Grant’s Media and Crime class years after she was mentored by JU student, eager to share the positive experience she had had as a young student at Terry Parker.

Grant expressed gratitude to CIS for the long-standing partnership. “I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity CIS gives my students to apply their academic learning while at the same time developing an awareness of the importance of civic engagement. But most importantly, they give our students the chance to make a difference in the lives of the children in Arlington, and that is a gift that pays itself forward in countless ways.”

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