At Durham Tech, students help students thrive

CorrespondentJuly 17, 2011 

— Matthew McCain, in a dress shirt and slacks, opens the doors for strangers and greets those he knows with a mister or Ms. in front of their first name.

The 24-year-old stands out from other Durham Technical Community College students. But he is more than a student.

McCain is the president of Visions, a peer mentoring group that attracts anywhere from 20 to 80 mostly male minority students each semester. The group helps members achieve academic, social, professional and personal success.

"Men tend to not want to ask for help," McCain said.

Visions tries to show that asking for assistance "is not a sign of weakness," said Isaac Thomas, student development specialist at the college.

At first, McCain did not want help either but later realized he needed it. "I've learned a lot from the group," he said.

In Visions, the mentees are also the mentors. A student weak in a certain subject, for example, may be strong in a different one. Those in the group actually prefer to use the term "leader" instead of mentor.

At community colleges, often 30 percent of students who start a semester do not come back for the second, according to Tom Jaynes, executive dean of student development and support for the college. Among black students, it is much higher. However, students who participate in Visions tend to come back 80 to 90 percent of the time, he said.

The typical community college student is different from a student at a four-year institution. The average age is 30, and 75 percent of them work and many have families, Jaynes said. College is not their life, but part of it.

Like many state programs (part of Visions is on a state grant), Visions' budget is being cut by 10 percent, or $2,000, according to Jaynes. That money helps pay for one-on-one tutoring of Visions students.

There is a greater need of tutoring than the college can provide for students as a whole. However, those in Visions have access to private tutoring dedicated to their group (in addition to the peer support). Jaynes said that the cuts will mean fewer tutor hours. "There is always more demand for one-on-one tutoring," said Jaynes.

He said that it is difficult to find other money to make up the difference but leaders at the college have not given up.

Once a student completes an application and attends four Visions meetings, he is considered an active member in the group.

There is a similar leadership group for women, and often the two groups have joint meetings.

In addition to helping with academics, Visions members help each other find jobs. Some of the members have been convicted of crimes, which makes it even harder. However, Thomas works his connections, and the students help to make the student more marketable. They have had success finding work for these people.

McCain tells the story of a previous member who was homeless and without a college degree when he joined the group. He eventually not only graduated from Durham Tech but eventually completed a master's degree and is now well-employed. While a lot of it is due to the student's hard work, McCain said that a lot also has to do with Visions.

"I feel proud when (Visions students) walk across the stage (at graduation)," said Thomas. "I know I am making a difference."

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