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December 21, 2017

FGCU student mentors spread success at academy

One of the great things about The FGCU Effect — inspiring those who inspire others — is that it often creates a ripple effect.

Consider Miranda Marts, internship coordinator and adjunct faculty in the Department of Justice Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice at Florida Gulf Coast University, and with 10 years of background working in the child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems, she uses her education and experience to lead today’s university students in mentoring at-risk juveniles in Southwest Florida.

Success Academy work board

Marts’ influence ripples out to the FGCU criminal-justice students who are part of that mentoring program. This past semester, six of these young women — two of whom graduated this month — met for two hours weekly with a group of teenage girls at Success Academy in Fort Myers, an alternative school in the Lee County district designed to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students who, for whatever reason, got off to a bad start in life.

At that point, the time, understanding, compassion and mentorship that FGCU seniors Hope Juarez, Ashley Toledo, Gabriella Leverence, Evelyn Philistin, Lauren Lofton and Kieran Ziemba gave unconditionally to girls not much younger than themselves sent out yet another wave of The FGCU Effect — self-esteem, educational commitment, life skills and commitment to service — that the Success Academy students hopefully will pass on to others one day.

“Some of my FGCU students have been doing service learning with me for a few years now, far overreaching their school requirements,” said Marts, who has led FGCU student-mentoring groups working with several regional programs for at-risk youth, this being the third semester at Success Academy (first with a girls-only Success group).

“This shows not only their commitment to their own educational and career paths, but their care and compassion for the populations we work with,” Marts said. “Some of these college students are carrying full course schedules, working jobs and doing internships, yet they still make time for this group. They’re so great for the girls, they amaze me every day.”

For Juarez, a Fort Myers native, the experience hits close to home. “I was one of those kids who needed that mentor in my own life,” she said. “In the time we’ve been here, I can see the changes in behavior and attitude. Some of these girls don’t have a family atmosphere at home, and the fact they look at us like family is really touching to me.”

Toledo had a Naples upbringing far removed from the troubled lives many of the Success  students were born into. “This has meant the world to me,” she said. “I had a different path than these girls; I was very lucky with my home life. This has really opened my eyes to bigger problems in the world.”

Leverence, who’s from Robinsville, N.J., “just needed some credits, so I took Miranda’s special-topics class. But when I got involved, it was an interesting change in my life because I saw people struggling firsthand. My brother is African-American/Italian and is like an outcast at his high school, which is primarily white students. His experience has shown me not only how to help the students we work with, but to show my brother how he can make a positive impact.”

In saying that the “chance to impact and empower” the Success students has been a great experience for her, Naples resident Philistin admitted that “if it weren’t for the staff members at my high school, I wouldn’t be here. I understand the importance of paying it forward, of taking one day, one hour, a few minutes to say, ‘Hey, I see you, you got this, you’re doing great.’

“One memory that we create in the classroom might be that one memory that keeps them from making a bad decision in the future,” Philistin said.

Photo of Success Academy in Fort Myers, an alternative school in the Lee County district
Success Academy in Fort Myers is an alternative school in the Lee County district.

The mentoring experience with younger students in the criminal-justice system was particularly eye-opening for Lofton, whose parents in St. Petersburg are both in law enforcement. “I grew up believing that people like those in the population we work with are bad people, but working with these kids, I’ve learned that making a few bad mistakes doesn’t define someone,” she said.

Ziemba, a Tampa resident who’s complementing her criminal-justice major with a minor in psychology, has worked with adults in an assisted-living facility, but her first experience mentoring teens has taught her that they are “really impressionable, and all of the kids we work with come from a really hard home life.”

“If you look at the background of kids in the criminal-justice system, they’ve experienced something in their lives that sent them down this road,” Ziemba said. “So if we can intercept that, show them that people are here who care for you, want to help you, be a role model, we can hopefully stop them from going down that route. Making a difference in their lives has definitely made a difference in mine.”