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Columbia Spectator Staff

As the University reflects on public service this week, a local organization is launching a mentoring program that enables University students to interact with young people on the Upper West Side for the first time.

The program—created by Broadway Housing Communities—is a means by which Columbia is attempting to ameliorate its strained relationship with the surrounding neighborhood. As both a landmark of economic prosperity and an employer, Columbia has long walked a blurry line with regard to its role in upper Manhattan. Though surely not the first effort to pair children in the area with the resources of a large university, the Dorothy Day After School Program, established in 2003, aims to introduce youth to new possibilities by helping them to build meaningful relationships with their mentors.

Founded in 1983 to redress homelessness, BHC has long offered residents of its housing sites after-school programs. This mentor program differs from previous versions in that it targets older students—particularly those in the Dorothy Day Apartments supportive housing site, located at Riverside Drive between 135th and 136th streets—and is specifically geared toward families. According to Brett Robertson, youth and adult program director at BHC, "This mentoring program has grown out of a recognized need to engage our older youth in a personal, powerful way."

While the program won't be underway until next month, it will match mentors with middle-school and high-school students between the ages of 12 and 18, many of whom reflect the diversity of cultures and ethnicities encompassed by the Upper West Side. Robertson hopes the initiative will be fulfilling for both the mentor and mentee.

"It is important that mentors and mentees both understand what the purpose of the program is," Robertson said, adding, "When a program's objectives are unclear, all parties have difficulty understanding where they fit into the larger picture."

Becoming a mentor will also be a learning process, as those students interested will be given classes and engage in a one-on-one interview with BHC staff so they can be teamed up with a mentee best suited to their interests, talents, and traits.

Regardless of Columbia's institutional place in the community, its students have a long history of lending a hand. Umbrella service group Community Impact, according to its Web site, boasts a "dedicated corps of more than 950 Columbia University student volunteers participating in 25 community service programs, which serve more than 8,000 people each year," and Columbia Community Outreach engages over 1,000 students, faculty, staff, and alumni for one day of community service throughout New York City.

"Trust between two people doesn't happen instantaneously," Robertson commented. "The reality is that, especially for youth, it can take some time for a relationship to develop. Unfortunately, even given all of that, some mentoring relationships don't work. If a mentoring relationship isn't working, it's time for everyone to move on."

Still, Robertson noted that the results of a successful match could lead to change in both the mentor's and mentee's lives. While he expects that the youth will "learn to model and exhibit behaviors and habits of successful people and gain the skills necessary to pursue their dreams," he added that the mentoring process is not only for the benefit of the mentee.

Columbia students will have official access to this program starting in October.

Broadway Housing Communities homelessness mentoring