A look inside GSP’s mentorship program 

May 21, 2021

Illustration by Alex Giorno

Since its inception in 2004, the Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP) has continued to grow as it works to support low-income and first-generation students at the university. In addition to financial and academic assistance, GSP has expanded its services to include wellness efforts, club partnerships, and, most recently, a mentorship program which began in 2015. 

The mentorship program was built out of a preexisting culture of personal connections and encouragement among first-generation and low-income students at the university. Claire Joyce (P ’15) formalized the project in 2015. With help from alumni donors and Dean of Admissions Charles Deacon, GSP Director Missy Foy (COL ’03) has greatly expanded the program’s membership from approximately 50 in its first year to more than 650 now. In addition to a widening scope of services, the alumni mentorship program has grown to build the necessary tools, interview processes, and guides necessary for supporting mentors. 

Since 2004, GSP has served over 1,600 Georgetown students. Though the program accepts students mainly on a financial basis, 85 percent of participants in GSP are students of color and over 70 percent are first-generation students. GSP scholars graduate at a rate of 96 percent which greatly outpaces the national rate amongst first-generation students—at around 30 percent. 

A 2017 Department of Education report found Black and Latino students make up 41 percent of total first-generation college students, more than double the combined percentage for continuing-generation college students. Data from 2016 shows that the majority of Black and Latino students also qualify as low-income, defined as students whose family or individual income is below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. The demographic trends are tied to a history of mutually-reinforcing barriers in higher education and employment against people of color. 

The core function of GSP is to provide on-campus assistance to students accepted into the program. For some students, the program made an immediate difference, making attending Georgetown financially feasible and helping students navigate a predominantly-white and wealthy institution. 

“I remember my mom saying, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this,’ because I grew up in a single-mother household,” Julian De La Paz (SFS ’15) said of GSP’s financial support. “We received the financial aid package in the mail, and I distinctly remember the fee being waived to secure my deposit.”

According to Traci Higgins (COL ’86), another alumni mentor, the university’s approach to student support, as well as the overall campus environment, has changed drastically since her time on the Hilltop, when the same resources did not exist for her and other students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I was a GSPer before there was GSP, a first-generation low-income student back in August of 1982,” Higgins said. “And I certainly understood what that all meant.” 

Since Higgins’s time at Georgetown, community support has evolved past the initial scholarship and funding grants. 

“Back in the day, the focus was just getting people here and thinking that that was enough, but now we understand that it’s ‘to and through,’” she said, referring to initial scholarship and funding grants. GSP did not initially house many of the continuous support structures it now offers.

Now, GSP offers continuous structures of support for first-generation and low-income students, including relationships between members of the community on and off-campus. During his pre-orientation program, De La Paz met many other incoming and current GSP students, even though the two-week program was unaffiliated with GSP. Though the connections were informal, he remembers support systems springing from those interactions. Deven Comen (COL ’12), De La Paz’s mentor, experienced a similar phenomenon during her time at Georgetown, as alumni and members of the program informally shared advice and counsel within a community environment.

As she stays connected to the program, Comen has seen more acknowledgement from Georgetown that being a first-gen, low-income student comes with specific challenges, and willingness from GSP students to speak up for their needs. “I was on the student board when I was at Georgetown, and at that point, no one wanted to be outed as first-gen and low-income,” she said. 

Comen recalled an incident when a donor wanted to buy GSP students Georgetown sweatshirts. When the donor suggested adding the GSP logo to the gear, Comen remembers students asking for it to be minimized or placed somewhere unassuming. 

“[It’s] taking the burden and shame out of it, ” she continued, emphasizing the need for progress reducing stigma for first-generation and low-income university students.

Once on campus, GSP’s comprehensive support includes more than its financial contribution: The program includes a wellness center, ad hoc necessity grants, partnerships with other campus organizations who support undocumented students, and even a course for incoming students about navigating the university environment. In their later semesters, students have the opportunity to create personal relationships with the more than 400 alumni mentors who offer guidance and care. 

Mentors come from a range of backgrounds, including GSP alumni, Community Scholars, and other GU alumni. Students who opt into the program fill out a form to gauge the best fit.

“I carefully consider characteristics mentors and mentees may have in common, such as if a student and mentor both grew up in Southern California, root for the Knicks, or love Netflix documentaries,” Yasi Mahallaty (M ’21), the assistant director of GSP responsible for pairings, wrote in an email to the Voice

Depending on student needs, some relationships focus more heavily on professional development and being able to use the Georgetown alumni network, while others develop into close friendships and familial connections.

“She was someone I knew I could call immediately and she would be there in five seconds,” De La Paz said of Comen. “Deven is to this day one of my closest friends.”

Jazmin Pruitt (COL ’19), reflected on how her mentor, Nancy Clark (COL ’77, M ’81) showed her support throughout Pruitt’s time in school.

“She would literally come to my apartment and buy all these vegetables because I didn’t know how to cook, and she would slice them all up and put them in Ziploc bags,” Pruitt said. “College can be really hard and taxing, and she did the smallest things that made such a huge impact.”

Clark first learned about the mentorship program through other volunteer experiences with GSP, including helping first-years move in when they arrived on campus.

“I would pick up students from the airport or bus station, and I basically was their parent for the weekend,” she said. As a DMV local, Clark regularly meets her mentees and invites students to her house for special occasions. 

When Pruitt, who now works in Georgetown’s Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action office, graduated, the relationship with her mentor continued.

“We have traditions. She bakes me a pecan pie for every birthday and invites me over,” she said. “Anytime I needed anything, she was just a phone call or a drive away.”

Pruitt and Clark’s relationship is deeply personal. “Jazmin is a remarkable person, very trusting, open, sharing, joyous. I try to be as open with her and share my experiences,” Clark added.

Clark and her husband both hold undergraduate and advanced degrees from Georgetown. Being able to afford sending her own five children to Georgetown also made her want to support other students who didn’t have the same means as her family. Her husband, Kevin Clark (COL ’76, L ’79) began mentoring GSP students the same year she did.

Mentors living in the D.C. area have the opportunity to explore the city with their mentees, through in-person conversations over coffee or food. “Since we’re in the Washington area, we’re able to see our mentees in person, and we try to do things with them that are fun,” Kevin Clark said. He described bringing his first mentee, who was from Zambia, to Nationals baseball games and restaurants throughout the city. Six years after first becoming a mentor, Clark still keeps in touch with his mentees, even those who have moved on from Georgetown.

Some mentors are previously unaffiliated with GSP and not even located in the D.C. area. Kurt Butenhoff (SFS ’84) first became involved in mentorship through another university and wanted to find out about similar opportunities at Georgetown. He recognized that first-gen and low-income students face challenges other students often do not see, or even exacerbate. 

Upon learning of the program, Butenhoff volunteered to work with GSP students as mentees.

“I view my role as trying to help on all fronts when possible: whether that’s advice on career direction, approaches to interviews, challenges in school life or anything else,” he said.

“Kurt has definitely become a mentor of mine whenever I have specific questions about career or future goals or networking,” Vincent Dong (COL ’20), Butenhoff’s mentee, said. “And as we approached senior year it was more about job finding, and now it’s character building and how to handle this COVID environment.”

“These mentorships are really valuable in providing that kind of help,” he continued.

Butenhoff emphasized the students’ willingness to reinvest in their community. “I think that GSP is creating future leaders in America, and not only in the traditional sense of political figures or CEOs, but also in the local sense of going through the program, experiencing Georgetown, and wherever they end up going … giv[ing] back,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought an entirely new set of challenges to GSP students and to the mentorship process, as students struggled to find housing off-campus, a stable environment in which to take classes, and networks of care outside D.C. Yet, mentor and mentee relationships remain intact, if challenged by distance. 

“It’s only changed in the sense that we haven’t been able to see each other,” De La Paz said of his now eight-year-long friendship with Comen. “I would normally have to be at Georgetown multiple times throughout the year. But I don’t feel as though we’ve missed a beat.”

While the continued strength of mentorship relationships is a testament to the dedication of GSP staff and members, the pandemic brought a unique set of challenges to the program itself and its student population.

“One thing we understand is that the financial pressure on students has been exacerbated,” Higgins said of the pandemic. “All these costs are big enough to derail someone’s education.” 

Universities and programs across the country lost funding during the economic downturn, and GSP felt a similar strain. While the program was able to cover its students’ expenses through fundraising and relatively stable donations, national trends point to the aftereffects of the pandemic on first-generation and low-income college students, for whom the interruption in education could have long-term implications and who are harder-hit by the ensuing financial crisis than some of their peers.

“We’ve seen trends across the country where students are deciding to take a gap year or maybe they decided that they want to stay closer to home and go to a community college and maybe transfer,” Comen, who now works in the college access field, said. 

While community college enrollment tends to increase during a recession, latest trends show sharp decreases in attendance, especially among first-years and underrepresented students. According to Comen, potential first-generation college students tend not to enroll at all after taking a gap year, and thus may never end up in a program like GSP. 

Despite these challenges, Higgins lauded the program staff for offering continued support, saying, “The team is so dedicated and hardworking that they figure out a way when there doesn’t appear to be a way.” 

In a time when Georgetown introduced heavy staffing cuts, however, she worried about how thin the GSP team is spread, adding that being able to hire more full-time staff members would allow the program to focus on long-term projects.

As in-person interactions are set to resume in the fall, members of GSP are seeing their program continue to grow. The GSP Necessity Fund, which covers emergency expenses for students, professional development, grocery stipends, and more, is still reliant in part on larger philanthropic donations. The first round of endowment fundraising, however, hopes to institutionalize the funding and ensure stability for the future. 

“It wasn’t the culture that it is now with all these opportunities for students to talk about social inequity and how they see it show up on campus,” Comen said of the developments following her initial involvement. “GSP is becoming more of a vehicle for students to become advocates.”

The alumni mentorship program, itself only six years old, will continue to grow and build on the feedback GSP receives from mentors about their process. “We get a large number of referrals for mentors, and we are in the fortunate position of having a lot of volunteer interest,” Mahallaty wrote. To continue developing its support structures and ability to extend care to students before, during, and after their time at Georgetown, GSP will rely on its donors and the experiences of its ever-growing alumni corps.

“GSP extends far beyond the Hilltop, and so much of that is the alumni network, which is a gift that keeps on giving,” De La Paz said. “They go above and beyond to make sure that students and graduates feel supported.”

“That’s what it’s all about: paying it forward,” Pruitt said of the possibility of becoming a mentor herself. “Nancy definitely did not have to invest in me—that takes a lot of time and resources—and so I would love to pay that forward in any way that I can.”

Paul James
Paul is a former section editor and ESVA at the Voice and a student in the SFS, class of 2023, studying Culture and Politics. His favorite color is grey, spelled correctly.

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