I am 72 years old. I grew up an only child in New York City on Manhattan’s Westside. I attended private high school, got my B.A. from New York University and then earned my J.D. Degree from Catholic University’s law school in Washington, D.C.
My first job out of law school was for the U.S. Department of the Interior where I was the attorney for the U.S. Park Police. From 1968-1970, I served as the Federal Government negotiator for all of the Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in Washington, D.C. In the fall of 1970 I began an 18-month sabbatical where I backpacked through the Pacific, down to New Zealand then on into Southeast Asia, India and Afghanistan.
Upon returning to the States, I began the next phase of my career working as an environmental attorney and consultant. I spent some 20 years in this field. In the early 1990’s I began a second career as co-founder of a medical products company. We went on to sell the company and after 2000 I resumed doing environmental consulting as well as serving as a private mediator and an arbitrator.
As I moved into semi-retirement, my wife insisted that I find something to do. She recommended that I do some volunteer work. After exploring options on the internet, I eventually found my way to the Children’s Resource Network and the One-on-One Mentoring Program.
After my initial training, I picked the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home (CSPH), a private, nonprofit and non-discriminatory child caring agency that provides community-based child welfare services including supportive education, health & wellness programs and 24-hour, state approved residency for vulnerable youth. Essentially, an orphanage. I picked the group home because I felt that I could make a better contribution to older students. While this proved true, I totally underestimated how mentoring my first student would impact me.
I was assigned to mentor Jane, a 17-year-old high school senior who wanted to go on to college. She’d been at the home since the 9th grade when the Division of Family and Child Services removed her and her siblings from the family home and sent her to live at CSPH.
As a first-time mentor, I expected my job would be to help my student with certain of her classes so she could continue to get and maintain the grades needed to get into college. The people at CSPH told me that Jane was exceptionally bright, dedicated to being the first person in her family to graduate from college and was a positive role model for the other residents at the home. They said she’d been working with school counselors and had applied for and won several scholarships. They felt that Jane could handle her class work and that the most important contribution I could make would be to work with her on scholarship applications.
In fact, Jane was applying for the Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) Program. The Gates Scholarship is intended to provide outstanding minority students with an opportunity to complete an undergraduate college education in any discipline or area of interest. Having no formal experience or training as a teacher, I believed that for me to be an effective mentor required building trust and creating a relationship that would support and foster honest and direct communication as we freely exchanged ideas, opinions and viewpoints.
I wasn’t going to do Jane’s work and I wasn’t going to tell her what to write. What I could do was explore options and make suggestions. I saw that my job was to help Jane do what she needed to get done in order to earn scholarships. The fact that 8 essays are required for the Gates’ application made it a perfect place to start.
Fortunately for me, Jane agreed with my approach. In fact, I think Jane would have insisted on it. She is her own person, with her own story and her own points of view. Jane is ambitious and has defined goals. In many ways Jane knows who she is, so she’s comfortable discussing different ideas and hearing different viewpoints. Her maturity is evident from two important behaviors: one, there’s no pretense, she readily acknowledges what she doesn’t know; and two, she doesn’t insist that her views are the only right views.
I wanted to convey an approach to writing scholarship essays, a method or process that I felt would stand her in good stead in college and beyond. We spent many of our initial hours together just talking. Then Jane began writing, writing about what she knew best – her life experiences and her own thoughts and feelings. She’s extraordinarily open about events in her life and writes with surprising honesty. Thanks to her father, she appreciates the English language, as differentiated from urban slang, and she speaks and writes exceptionally well and exceptionally quickly.
It was these first essays that surfaced the question of why she, Jane, should be picked to receive a Gates Scholarship. We backed off a little bit to get some perspective. Together we identified the common denominators shared by every Gates’ applicant. Each would be smart, would graduate with good grades, would get high marks on standardized tests, would have good recommendations; would demonstrate a commitment to community service and would present as a good citizen. All of the applications would in some way state a commitment to give back to society, to neighborhood or family.
So what was it about Jane that would earn a scholarship, especially in a national competition? It was right at this time that Jane found out she was selected for a Posse Scholarship and she had one day to write an essay saying why she wanted to attend one of the Atlanta Posse’s 7 participating colleges or universities. She selected Brandeis University. We began by discussing what made Brandeis worth her attending. In the beginning, Jane didn’t know where Brandeis got its name. We did some research and began reading about Louis D. Brandeis – a Harvard Law Graduate, the first Jewish Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and for some 23 years one of the first and strongest supporters of the government’s duty to protect the rights of the individual. Jane saw that she shared similar goals, viewpoints, and traits, understood they both experienced minority prejudices and from this came an essay… an essay that helped Jane win a full tuition scholarship to Brandeis University!
When we turned back to the Gates’ essays, Jane had a clear understanding of why her application should be accepted. What would set her apart was simply who she was, her experiences and how she responded to them to become who she was at this point in time. Her essays did just that – she wrote honestly, she shared herself and her family. She impressed me and I hope the final judges for the Gates’ scholarship. As of this writing, I am honored to be a mentor to Jane, one of 1600 finalists out of some 53,000 applicants.
Earning a full tuition scholarship from Brandeis and being in the top 3% of the applicants for the Gates Millennium Scholarship program are significant accomplishments for Jane. I’m not sure to what extent my mentoring actually contributed to any of her successes, but I feel energized and empowered from participating in CRN’s One-on-One mentoring program. Each week I look forward to my time with Jane.
I’m also optimistic for the future. I’ve met other high school students living at the group home. A few are interested in talking with me. They watch and listen when Jane and I are working together in the computer lab. If possible, I will begin working with other CSPH residents next year. As a mentor, I’ve have to acknowledge the outstanding support provided to me and to the residents at Carrie Steele-Pitts Home from Eloise Mitchell, Residential & Educational Program Director and Evelyn Lavizzo, Ph.D., Executive Director.
I like myself in the role of Jane’s mentor so I’m particularly grateful that Dr. Evelyn Lavizzo asked that I continue by being a long distance mentor for Jane when she starts at Brandeis. She said she’s not aware that this has been done before but that she felt that it was important for Jane to know she had continuing support. I hope to enjoy a long relationship with a very special young woman, Jane.
Since writing the above, Jane received the following from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program:
Congratulations! We are very pleased to inform you of your selection as one of the 1,000 Gates Millennium Scholars for our GMS Class of 2016. We commend you on your strong leadership, community service and academic achievements that contributed to your selection as a Gates Millennium Scholar. Your accomplishment is especially notable in context of the more than 53,000 students who applied, making this final class of Gates Scholars one of the most competitive candidate groups in the program’s history. We are very excited for you to join the community of Gates Scholars and we are very pleased to confer this distinct honor that distinguishes you as a Leader for America’s Future™.
I’m thrilled for Jane – great to finish in the top 2% of such a competitive group – and, of course, I feel very good about myself and my contribution as a first-time mentor. Equally important, I value the relationship Jane and I established over the year and I look forward to being available to mentor her as she enters the Brandeis class of 2020.
By Ken Tapman
Mr. Tapman is an Attorney, a FINRA Arbitrator and a Private Civil Mediator. He is semi-retired and currently resides in the Vinings area of Atlanta with his wife and close to his 9 and 11 year old grandsons and their dog, Georgia.