“You are never strong enough that you don’t need help.” Cesar Chavez
Peer mentoring is a vital piece to the work that I am doing with migrant students in Mount Vernon. People often hear our students speak in public and comment on how amazing they are. They are blown away by their bravery, their poise, their passion. It is easy to forget that behind this handful of dedicated public speakers stands a crowd of migrant students supporting them and aspiring to be more like them.
My work with migrant students begins in the 7th grade. Students are encouraged to find their voice, speak their truth, and feel pride in themselves. Not all students are destined to become public speakers, so we explore many different forms of personal expression, following the students’ interests. The middle school students watch the high school students aim high, work hard, and reap the rewards. They wait anxiously for their turn. I constantly provide students with opportunities to stretch themselves, so that when the big opportunity presents itself, they feel ready. This formula has worked well for us.
One example of this form of mentoring happened quite naturally over the last month. In November, four middle school students accompanied me to Western Washington University (WWU) to teach one session of a college class on how to work with migrant students. This is an opportunity that I provide twice a year to middle school students who are interested, always bringing new students who have never attended. This is a coveted trip and students who have done it in the past will encourage new students to try it. “Just try it! It’s cool!” This is typically a student’s first experience telling his or her story in public. It is a safe classroom environment, about 25 college students divided into two groups, so the students are presenting to about 13 people. There are always tears, from both the middle school and college students, as the kids begin to share heartbreak and trauma about which they have never spoken out loud. Often, once they start speaking, they can’t stop. This was the case again this year. Last week, at our Migrant Youth Leadership Conference at WWU, attended by over a hundred local migrant students from all over the area, three of our Mount Vernon high school students told their stories in front of the large audience. Inspired by them, one of the 7th grade students who had helped teach the college class stood up and told his story to all in attendance. His nervousness was obvious, but he was inspired and motivated. His pride and passion overtook his nerves. A new public speaker was born.
Not all migrant students crave the limelight. Behind every small group of students who travels across the country to present is a large group of students who have helped fund raise, organize details, and overall support the participating students. I would hate for those amazing students to be overlooked. The picture I have included above shows our Mount Vernon middle school students this year. We have many more students who have already moved on to the high school and continue to be involved in the work that we do.
The Mount Vernon Migrant Leaders Club provides migrant students with a safe place to explore who they are and where they want to go. Students participate at varying levels and truly engage only when they are ready. The club offers constant and varied opportunities for engagement so that students can decide their own pace. Some students engage in the 7th grade, others as juniors in high school. It’s never too late, and once students decide they’re ready, they will find a large support network of inspiring, motivated migrant students prepared to support them on their journey.
People often ask me how I get my students to write or speak about their lives. The answer lies in this peer mentoring model that I have just described. The motivation does not come from me. I provide the opportunities, but the students themselves provide the motivation.