Faculty members as mentors

Author: Gene Stowe

Julia Douthwaite

Two years ago, Julia Douthwaite, a professor of Romance languages and literatures, adapted her altered-book assignment for undergraduates so that the South Bend schoolgirl she mentors every week could create her own hardback book.

“I’m basically the production assistant and the illustrator,” explains Douthwaite, who also writes promotional blurbs for the back cover. “She’s the author. She’s so thrilled that she’s now the author of two books,” both treasured Christmas gifts for the girl’s mother.

Douthwaite and several other Notre Dame workers leave campus once a week to have lunch with a schoolchild, part of a South Bend Community Schools Corp. mentoring program that has more than 250 volunteers—and many more students hoping for the help.

It’s a low-impact service for the volunteer, and a high-impact experience for the student, participants say.

“The goal is to be supportive, to provide encouragement,” says Gina Shropshire, assistant professional specialist in the Mendoza College of Business, who is chair of the Dream Team Mentoring advisory board. “Someone in the schools has identified that this student might need a little extra support in some area,” such as reading, confidence building or just regular relationships.

“The commitment is to meet with your mentee once a week. It’s a variety of activities. We can read, we can talk, we can talk about schoolwork, we can develop our own projects. We try to come in and provide a little stability.”

She’s big sister, cheerleader, teacher, friend and tutor all rolled into one, Shropshire says, and the relationship can endure through the child’s schooling and beyond.

She started visiting a girl in third grade four years ago, and the connection, like the girl, has grown. “In third grade we probably sat and did more reading,” Shropshire recalls. “Now we sit and talk more. She’s taller than I am now.”

Alison Levey, academic adviser in the Mendoza College of Business, also participates in the program, as well as theology professor Gerald McKenny; Peri Arnold, professor of political science; and Anita Rees, associate director of the Career Center.

Douthwaite and Shropshire say it’s an important campus-town connection that benefits both sides.

“It’s a different perspective,” Shropshire says. “You hear news about schools across the country. This brings it down to a one-on-one relationship. I see a lot of good things in the schools.”

Douthwaite, whose children attended public schools, started visiting her student in third grade and sees the sixth-grader every Friday.

“The first year we played little games and read ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” she says. “The second year I got involved in doing this altered book,” pasting the girl’s dictated story on the pages of a small hardback bought at a secondhand store.

“Every week when I would go see her she would tell me a little bit more. I would take down what she said. We cover up the pages with her story. I type it and print it with different fonts and let her pick which fonts she wants.”

About half her undergraduate students opt for the altered-book assignment instead of the final exam, Douthwaite says. For them, it involves choosing a book that relates to the topic and inserting other stories, illustrations and comments to make the material their own.