Melissa Fries, Sylvia Gillies, and Missy Rae Magdelera headshots

Student Success in Challenging Times: Leveraging Partnerships, Virtual Mentorship, and Holistic Approaches

by Making Waves Foundation

Stockton Scholars’ college success team shares challenges and opportunities in supporting and mentoring students in college and career success

Hosted by Melissa Fries, executive director of Making Waves Foundation’s College and Alumni Program, or CAP, this month’s College Success Institute Q&A features a discussion with Sylvia Gillies, manager of college and career success, and Missy Rae Magdalera, college outreach and retention officer, both from Stockton Scholars. Sylvia and Missy Rae are a part of Stockton Scholars’ college success team, which provides scholarships and holistic support to boost college and career success.

As the team at Stockton Scholars aims to increase the number of students they serve and grow the college graduation rate for students from Stockton—which was 18% according to a 2018 U.S. Census American Community Survey—they are also meeting the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This includes leveraging increased participation in virtual programming, growing impactful partnerships, and focusing on holistic approaches to student success, such as support for basic needs and mental health. The Stockton Scholars team also runs two mentorship programs, utilizing both students and professionals in providing mentorship for students around financial literacy, academics, career development, and more.

Melissa: Describe the work Stockton Scholars does in the college success space.

Missy Rae and Sylvia: Stockton Scholars is an organization that provides place-based guaranteed scholarships and ‘wraparound support’ that will boost college and career success—including strengthened college counseling, career preparation, SAT preparation, support to maximize financial aid, and connections to retention services. Our team also collaborates with community partners to build a world-class cradle-to-career pipeline that helps our children realize their full potential.

We serve over 2,600 students in the Stockton, Lodi, Manteca, Lincoln, and Linden Unified School Districts and have provided students with 1,498 scholarships, including the Stockton Scholars Scholarship, the Spanos Scholarship, the Shriram Scholarship, and the Roses from Concrete Scholarship.

This year we have an additional 1,000 students from the class of 2021 who are eligible for scholarships. We are also expanding our scholarships to include all eligible students who go to high school in Stockton. Previously, the scholarships were only available for students who attended high school in the Stockton Unified School District. This expansion will allow us to serve an additional 2,500 students.

Melissa: What are some notable changes that COVID brought to your work?

Missy Rae: When everything became virtual, fortunately, we already had conducted most programming in a hybrid model. Virtual participation significantly increased participation in our College Ambassadors Program workshops and programming.

Our College Ambassadors are near-peer mentors enrolled in higher education, who guide young people from Stockton to help them realize their own deep sense of empowerment and belonging in their educational experiences, chosen career, and within society. Our College Ambassadors program offers free virtual bi-weekly workshops that are open to all college students from Stockton. Our space is designed to provide group support, encouragement, and advice to any students who may be struggling with their college experience.

Ambassadors work with the Stockton Scholars team on a voluntary basis to promote student-led outreach and retention workshops for any of their peers who are interested in learning more about topics like:

Sylvia: Our College Mentorship Program continues to be virtual as well. We want to continue to provide safe spaces for our students and all parties involved in the mentorship program.

Missy Rae: This program actively recruits working professionals from Stockton and elsewhere in California, who are passionate about mentoring young people entering or pursuing higher education. All mentors commit to a minimum of two years to being matched with a college student-mentee. Mentors meet with their mentee for at least two hours per month to discuss the mentee’s progress, challenges, milestones and strategies for college and career success. There is also a one-hour, optional but highly encouraged, monthly mentor training session.

Key focus areas for the College Mentorship program and our students include:

Missy Rae: A lot of the work has become more dependent on collaboration with school and community partners. Our comrades at organizations like Changeist Stockton and Little Manila Rising were able to provide youth empowerment workshops to our students and helped to hire college-aged scholars. Remote work opportunities during the pandemic helped our students stay in school while also giving them an opportunity to build financial cushions.

Sylvia: As we become more creative in our partnership space, recently, we partnered with UC Davis Undergraduate Admissions, and they will be offering virtual advising sessions with our students who would like to transfer.

Melissa: Midway through a second year of COVID-19, what is impacting Stockton Scholars and the lives of students you’ve worked with?

Missy Rae: Students in our program attending schools across California have faced concerns related to mental health, such as heightened feelings of despair, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Many of them hope that returning to some form of hybrid or in-person instruction will help them to reconnect with their peers and professors, but the fear of getting sick makes this a slow process. Our students are doing their best to balance the precautionary measures in place, while also attempting to access campus clubs, student organizations, jobs and internships, and other on-campus resources and activities.

Melissa: What did you initially think was a challenge that turned out to be an opportunity to improve how you support students?

Missy Rae: The pandemic redirected our efforts to more holistic approaches to student success. We had to turn our attention to the disproportionate rates of mental health issues that were impacting our students, as well as their loved ones. A lot of programming became focused on de-stigmatizing mental health concerns and treatment, as well as ensuring that students had adequate social support intact to maintain their academic success.

Many students still had to identify and find employment in the midst of a large-scale public health crisis which made it more difficult to identify reliable streams of income. This made it hard for some students to access basic needs such as food, money for gas or public transportation, and Wi-Fi connections. In response to this, the Stockton Scholars team launched a limited emergency fund in which we were able to reimburse college and trade school students up to $200 for expenses that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

Sylvia: We also began to increase our outreach efforts to organizations so we can expand our mentor pool. This takes intentional research into organizations that have a philanthropic or volunteer arm of their organization. Many organizations offer employee incentives for those employees willing to volunteer their time with organizations such Stockton Scholars.

Melissa: In your experiences, what are the key elements of successful college completion?

 Missy Rae and Sylvia:

Melissa: We are facing unprecedented times and an uncertain economic recovery. What keeps you up at night?

Missy Rae and Sylvia: There are several pressing questions, including:

This is part of 
Making Waves Foundation’s College Success Institute Q&A series, which shares best practices and strategies that help increase the college graduation rate of low-income and first-generation students. The opinions expressed in this article series are those of the featured contributors.