Youssouf Bakayoko, Shepherd University

Youssouf Bakayoko, a Shepherd University student from the Ivory Coast, speaks with young people involved in the Frederick County-based I Believe in Me mentoring program for at-risk youth. Shepherd and I Believe in Me plan to launch a partnership this summer.

Frederick County students seeking connection and tutelage will benefit from a new partnership between Shepherd University and I Believe in Me, a local mentorship program for at-risk youth.

Through the planned program, students from West African countries like Niger and Cameroon will aim to help Frederick County students with school work and collaboration skills.

Lois Jarman, a former member of the Frederick County Board of Education, has formed bonds with students from all over the world through her role as director of international affairs at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She was recently impressed by a few of her students' aptitude for math and their high performance at Shepherd.

So when Jarman's friend Heather Hinkle, education program coordinator at Frederick Community College, mentioned that some students of color feel left behind in public school due to what they see as systemic racism and certain biases, Jarman thought of her international students.

"So many of our international students are on the dean's list, they just do exceedingly well in terms of academic achievement," she said. 

Jarman said her students from West Africa speak of the importance of education and high performance in schools. And when she and Hinkle held a roundtable discussion with three Black men from the U.S. and three Black men from West African countries, it opened her eyes to the different systems in the two countries. She felt inspired to start writing grants for tutoring programs.

While her grants were never approved, Jarman took notes from the Woman to Woman Mentoring program in Frederick when thinking about other possibilities. 

"That's why the Woman to Woman Mentoring is so successful," Jarman said, "because a woman, a female mentee ... knowing that her mentor went through similar struggles, knowing that her mentor was faced with many of the same obstacles that she is faced with, can then realize her goals are achievable."

She thought a similar program connecting Black middle and high school students with Black college students could have a similar impact. 

Jarman reached out to Aje Hill of I Believe in Me to see if his group might be interested in forming a connection with the international students. At their first meeting two weeks ago, the Shepherd University students shared stories of struggles with English and immigration. 

The topic rang true for some of Hill's mentees. One young boy thanked a student for sharing his story because it reminded him of moving to the U.S. from Cameroon with his family when he was 6. 

"So that connection was made immediately," Jarman said.

The mentees said they would appreciate tutoring from the international students, who in turn get an additional opportunity to practice English. 

Hill said having tutors that look like them and have similar life experiences is a great asset for his students, who generally are in middle school and early high school.

"Sometimes these young men and women in the mentor program are suffering from brokenness, suffering from mistrust," Hill said. "So sometimes they got to find the connection in order to elevate themselves."

Abdoul Nasser Achirou, an MBA student at Shepherd from Niger, said he's looking forward to making an impact on young people's lives.

"For example, if there's a struggling student in this program and I am able to help him improve his academic standing, that's not gonna only stay there, but it's gonna be a huge impact on his entire life because he ... would hopefully succeed, get his degree and that's gonna help him get a job ... it's a really long-term impact," Achirou said.

Connecting with the Black community in the U.S. is also important to Achirou. 

"When I'm seeing these struggling students, I'm seeing my brothers," he said. "No matter where we are ... we're always going to have struggles, and [we] want others to succeed."

The program will hopefully launch this summer, Jarman said, but the plans are somewhat dependent on I Believe in Me's move to a new location. Hill said the organization is looking for a space in Frederick so they can help more students in the city. Currently, they are meeting at a church in New Market four times a week. 

"We have 37 children on the waiting list right now, and the reason we cannot entertain them in mentorship is because we don't have the space available," Hill said.

Although the project has not reached full speed yet, Hill said the initial meeting this month gave him hope for the future of the partnership. 

"I think it was very inspiring," he said, "and I think the students of I Believe in Me really appreciated the young men taking the time to come and speak to them and talk to them about their experiences and how education is vital to their success."

Follow Erika Riley on Twitter: @ej_riley

(1) comment


A couple years ago I was working at a church, in the kitchen, and overheard Aje talking to a group of his students. He didn't know I was listening. He hadn't arrived yet when I came in and one of the boys smilingly helped me bring in some food I had brought. I was impressed. Aje is onto something with IBIM.

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