This fall, I am visiting Google Meets classrooms to deliver college access services, like essay writing and financial aid seminars, for high school seniors.

A former teacher myself, I sympathize with educators grappling with remote education. Yet at 27-years-old, I serve a different role in these videoconferences: A near-peer mentor whose recent life experiences enhance my ability to help students enroll in and attend college.

For high school seniors, getting into college is merely the first step in a longer journey of self-discovery, identity-formation, and professionalization. Learning what to do with the knowledge and skills gained in college, and where to put them to work, is a difficult process without mentorship. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our teachers and counselors have endured ever-increasing responsibilities well outside their roles, exacerbating the need for new types of mentors to address the ever-growing needs of our youth.

In these times of hardship and uncertainty, college students and young professionals from the Rio Grande Valley can serve their community by mentoring students. Whether it is a Brownsville native Zooming from a Microsoft work-desk in Seattle or a Pharr resident sharing his Boeing experiences over Google Meets, near-peer mentors can reach students where they are: online. Outside the traditional roles of teacher or counselor, near-peer mentors connect with mentees on levels beyond academics: They open life pathways that otherwise seem closed to low-income students from the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the short-term, near-peer mentors make the process of attending college easier by bestowing their expertise on subjects they know first-hand. From campus life to internships, they share invaluable advice with first-generation college students who now have a mentor who recently walked in their shoes.

In the long-term, near-peer mentors make the Rio Grande Valley a better place by reducing the negative effects of brain-drain, bringing their social capital back home for those who will come after. Their life paths serve as roadmaps for students who will one day work in the Rio Grande Valley and become leaders in their communities.

In high school, I had no mentor but myself. As a first-generation and low-income student,I struggled to get the most out of my Princeton University experience.For everything I gained in college, I wanted to bring back to students in Pharr ten-fold. Through my nonprofit,the College Scholarship Leadership Access Program (CSLAP),I have created a platform for near-peer mentors to give back to the Rio Grande Valley. Their stories of resilience have inspired me to expand this network of hard-working, altruistic young people, many of whom are my former mentees. In doing so, I hope to uplift the region by uplifting its youth.

Most of our work is done behind the scenes, or in these days the abyss of Zoom. College access is merely the medium through which we develop mentor relationships, resulting in university acceptances, internships, and conversations with industry leaders. Our work goes beyond the metrics of college enrollment and completion; we focus on the qualitative aspects of the college journey, including personal and professional growth.

In the age of COVID-19, feeling seen and heard matters more than before. With every videoconference I attend, I imagine how confused and frightened the students must feel. Their senior year may well be entirely virtual, and their lives never the same for it. The good news is they are not alone: Help is just a click away.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Thomas Ray Garcia, founder and executive director of the ‎College Scholarship Leadership Access Program (CSLAP). The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the author’s consent. Garcia, pictured above, can be reached at: [email protected].

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