Luis Perez and Alex Velasquez settled into the library at Southwest Community Campus, Alex with his lunch and Luis with a coffee. There was mentoring to be done, but first, some important business that needed to be decided.
“Okay,” said Luis, leaning close to Alex, “what kind of drink do you want?”
For the next 10 minutes or so the two discussed drinks and treats. The next day was Alexander’s 10th birthday and Luis, his mentor since September, was going to bring both the drink and the treat to school for the classroom party.
Having decided on some options – watermelon juice or perhaps orange juice and maybe water, plus cupcakes – the two turned their attention to more traditional mentoring activities.
But Luis’ face showed signs of relief at having at least covered the menu for the next day.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said about the impending drink-treat delivery.
The same could be said for his work as an elementary school mentor, a role he stepped into for the first time this school year.
“I’m a believer in the quote ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ by Mahatma Gandhi,” Luis said. “By becoming a mentor, I feel I’m making a difference in someone else with the hopes that they one day can also give to others. For me, education is one of the topics I deeply care about, so becoming a mentor of an elementary student has been perfect. They’re learning new things, and this is a good age to start having aspirations in life.”
Bringing Back Memories
Luis’ mentoring at Southwest sees him returning to his middle school alma mater, an experience he said still feels a bit surreal at times.
“The first day I walked into the building, it was an instant hit of memories,” he recalled. “It feels amazing to be back and to be able to see the students who will grow up and make a difference in our communities. Inside of me, I feel that Southwest never left me. At Southwest, I met four of my best friends who I still see very frequently. And I like to think that I am a proud result of GRPS (Grand Rapids Public Schools).”
Luis graduated from Union High School before heading to Western Michigan University, where he earned a bachelor of business administration degree in computer information systems and business analytics in 2018. It was a path he said he can trace back to encouragement received in high school.
“One of my teachers from an elective class made me believe that I had special skills with tech and encouraged me to pursue a degree in computer science,” he said.
He was an intern at Steelcase during his time at Western, and after graduation was offered a full-time position as an applications engineer in the information technology department. He said the job includes supporting processes, applications and reports for internal customers and working on projects that implement new software to give better tools to employees in the plants and warehouses.
He also co-founded the Loop Coding Center and is a member of the West Michigan Latino Network, joining with other network members to welcome students back to Union High on the first day of school last fall.
Both Luis and Alex are immigrants – Alex from Guatemala and Luis from Mexico – and Luis said he believes that their relationship has grown stronger because of that common experience.
“Coming to a new country without having any knowledge of the culture, the people and the language,” he said, “we can both relate that adapting hasn’t been easy. What I want to translate to Alex, and any other immigrant student, is that if I was able to get where I am in life, then they can definitely do the same. Becoming a first-generation college student wasn’t easy, and neither was adapting to the corporate world when no one in your family has ever had an office job, but they are achievable when you have people who believe in you.”
Luis and Alex were matched through the work of Affinity Mentoring, a nonprofit founded in 2016 to improve academic achievement, self-esteem, social skills and more. Affinity currently partners with Burton Elementary School, Burton Middle School, Southwest Community Campus and Godfrey-Lee ECC. It has approximately 280 students matched with mentors at all four sites, including about 70 at SWCC.
The schools provide Affinity with physical space and collaborate to decide which students need mentoring. There is a bilingual Affinity staff person at every partner school who coordinates and oversees recruitment, screening, training and matching and provides ongoing support for the matches, including access for the mentor to the necessary resources at the school to ensure a good mentoring session.
Culturally Responsive Mentors
Luis noted that the first couple of meetings he and Alex had were a little awkward “since Alex was just getting comfortable with me,” but added that setting some goals and objectives for the year helped give the pair a plan and a set of tasks to be accomplished. It’s not all work though.
“We like to have fun as well,” said Luis, “playing games, chatting about life, and we are currently in the process of brainstorming ideas for a project that we can build. Alex, in my opinion, is a super awesome person. Just from the first time we met I knew he’s someone who is very family-oriented and cares about his education. Our main focus for the year has been to improve English, and since we started meeting I’ve seen Alex grow amazingly.”
Rachel Humphreys, development director at Affinity Mentoring, said one of the organization’s goals is to provide high quality, culturally responsive mentoring to school-age children, and she was thrilled when Luis decided to return to Southwest to work with Alexander.
“To say we were excited he became a mentor at his former school is an understatement,” she said. “We are so thankful to him for stepping up to become a mentor and give back.”
“I like that he helps me,” he said with a shy smile. “He helps me read; he helps me with my math. I like it a lot.”