Photo by Candace diCarlo
If Teresa Maddox and Shamara Davis become novelists or literary critics someday, theyll have Stephanie Perkins-Lane to thank.
Okay, that may be stretching it a bit. But in her role as a Penn VIPS mentor, Perkins-Lane is exposing the two Sulzberger Middle School students to both the worlds of work and academic life while providing them with emotional support and encouragement.
Lane got involved with the mentoring program three years ago when African American Resource Center Staff Assistant Afi Roberson suggested she check it out. The program pairs eighth graders from several West Philadelphia public schools with Penn staff, who meet with the students once a month during the school year.
The experience has turned out to be an education for both her and her charges. For one thing, it opened up the normally reticent Perkins-Lane, who agreed to this interview because of her strong belief in the program.
Q. What exactly do you do with the students you mentor?
A. [The students] come on campus once a month and they may have a short program as a group. Some of the programs involve maybe a lawyer will come in and say what it takes to be a lawyer, or a doctor will say what it takes to be a doctor. Then they have assignments, like speeches or research to work on, and they have oral assignments that they have to [present].
After the group, we break off. Generally, what I try to do is give them a tour of campus we may go to DuBois House or the Museum or the library, just to give them an insight on campus.
And if theres any time left, we come back to my office and I show them what I do. I introduce them to any professors that may be around the office. And if Im working on an assignment that they can help with, I let them see what Im working on to expose them to general work life, [or] we may do some research on the Internet if they have questions about something.
Q. Do they get help with their homework?
A. If they ask for help with their homework. They really just want to be able to talk, someone to listen to them, maybe give advice about school what they should do, where they should go from here. Things like that, more so than asking for help for homework.
Q. How many students did you have the first year?
A. One student, which was a male student. It was an interesting experience, because he liked sports a lot and I didnt have a lot of information on sports, so I actually learned a lot from that.
Q. And the second?
A. The second year was really interesting because the student I had was 13, and thats the same age as my daughter [was then], and thats a really difficult age, because theyre in between finding themselves you know, they want to be little girls and they want to be grown-up girls as well, so its a lot of confusion. And at first I thought it was going to be difficult to talk to [my student], because she was really shy and really quiet. By the end of the program she was very communicative, and she really enjoyed me as a mentor and things worked out fine.
Q. And hows it coming this year?
A. Its great. We only met once so far, and so far the two students are really nice, they have good personalities, and I think its going to be a good year.
Q. What are the girls you have this year interested in?
A. One wants to be a cosmetologist. And Im just letting her know there are other options. I mean, thats a good field, but theres other things she can do as well, just to broaden her horizons a little.
The other person, I think she may have said something about being a doctor.
Q. Have you taken her over to the Medical School?
A. Not yet. Thats in our plans.
Q. What sorts of things have you learned as a mentor?
A. It helped me to come out of my safety comfort zone you know, just coming to work and going back home. So it really helps my understanding of dealing with people. Even dealing with my own daughter. I realize that people are people. We all have different needs and interests.
Q. How do your co-workers deal with your charges? Do they get along?
A. Yes. Theyre really very open and friendly and try to make the [students] feel comfortable. One of my co-workers last year was a mentor, and that was a good experience [for me].
Q. This is your third year as a mentor, which means your first student would be in 10th grade now. Have any of your students said that they might want to go to Penn when theyre ready for college?
A. They said they would be interested in going to college. They didnt say Penn. Some people want to move out of the city and go somewhere else. But I think the experience here at Penn plants a seed of what college life could be.
This year, 45 Penn staffers are participating in the Penn VIPS Mentoring Program, now in its sixth year. If youd like to be one of next years mentors, call Penn VIPS Director Isabel Sampson-Mapp at 215-898-2020.
Originally published on February 3, 2000