PITTSFIELD — As a member of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute based at Berkshire Community College, program leader Art Sherman recognized that the college has a lot of students in need: students navigating college on their own, often as first-generation attendees, others just trying to find a clearer pathway toward their futures college.
About 70 percent of BCC students are the first in their families to go to college.
So a couple of years back he had suggested that OLLI members, most of whom are seasoned professionals and scholars over the age of 50, step up to help mentor students who could use some extra support.
Helping to grow and implement the idea this year are OLLI members Carole Siegel and Claudia Shuster, who have revived the pilot and renamed the program as OLLI/BCC Mentoring for Success.
"I think it's great because it's utilizing the strengths and experience of our members," said OLLI at BCC President Leonard "Lenny" Tabs.
"I can't tell you how excited we are to see this program grow," Siegel said.
OLLI at BCC Executive Director Megan Whilden said the initial plan was to enlist five mentor-student pairs to help rejuvenate the program. This year, with the help of BCC professor and former guidance counselor Kari Dupuis, they've been able to make 16 matches, connecting students to OLLI members who have experience in the study and/or career fields the students are interested in pursuing. Each mentor makes a commitment to connect with his or her mentee in person at least once a month, as well as communicate via emails and phone calls for the duration of the academic year.
In addition, mentors meet among themselves on a regular basis to talk about how to support and communicate with students. Currently there's a waiting list of mentors who are willing to help out.
"Having someone like Alan to talk with is refreshing," said Jose Alfredo Cruz of his OLLI mentor, Alan Rubin.
Rubin, a former engineer, a soccer coach and a 40-year veteran retail businessman from Manhattan, moved to the Berkshires full-time 11 years ago. Cruz is a 28-year-old first-generation business student who will graduate this spring with an associate degree, and he is looking to continue his education at a four-year college and become an entrepreneur.
"I've always wanted to help people," Rubin said of his interest in volunteering for the Mentoring for Success program. He also works to advise and support local small-business owners.
"Whether working with mentees or small businesses, I've learned that you never tell them what to do. You're basically a listening board and then you get them to make their own decisions," Rubin said.
In working with Cruz, Rubin asks the student about his goals and interests. As Cruz explained his interests, they were able to narrow down the schools Cruz is looking at, and are exploring campus life and scholarship options, as well as people he can connect with on campus.
"Each meeting I ask Alfredo what his goals are for the next two weeks, and what I've learned about him is that you always get more than you expected," said Rubin, who noted how impressed he's been with Cruz's work ethic and achievements.
"I think he's helped with my goals and it's good that I have someone to report to other than my staff and teachers," Cruz said of his mentor. "He's been a very good influence for me."
Other mentoring pairs have included a retired teacher who is working with a BCC student who plans to teach; an art therapist working with a student who is studying the arts; and an attorney working with a student interested in pursuing law.
Dr. Lance Sterman is a semi-retired physician from Princeton, N.J., who specializes in neurological surgery. He and his wife relocated to the Berkshires about 2 1/2 years ago, attended an OLLI open house, and have been taking classes and volunteering ever since.
Back in December, he was matched as a mentor to a female student interested in studying medicine.
"I've been very fortunate in having a brilliant, wonderful student who is 18 years old and very well organized. She takes all the classes she's interested in, even outside her field, and it's been a lot of fun to help her decide if she wants to be a doctor, and if so, what type of doctor," said Sterman, who meets with his mentee about every two weeks.
He said he's wanted to help other people in his field and now that he's semi-retired, finally feels he has the time to do it.
"I can actually become more focused now and think about how I can help her," Sterman said. "I'm glad to be a part of her life in that way."
He, Rubin and Cruz also see the mentoring program as filling a critical need.
"I think it's necessary to help students who need that direction and to help them focus it," Sterman said.
Cruz said that in the process of searching for a new school, it's important for students to connect with someone "who has a knowledge of what works."
"Students need to make use of all the resources available to them at BCC. It's important for them to know that there are students like me who need help and people like Alan who are willing to help," said Cruz.
He added that he'd like to see OLLI mentors being matched with students as early as high school.
"If you're struggling, it helps to get the help early on," he said.
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
Where to call ...
To get involved with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute based at Berkshire Community College, call 413-236-2190.