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Where Are They Now?
Success Stories from UConn
Mentor Connection Students
By John Wray
Andrew Greenstein is finishing his undergraduate degree in biochemistry at UConn this spring and has been accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of California-Berkeley in the fall.
An honors student for the past four years, Greenstein decided to come to UConn after taking part in Mentor Connection, a three-week summer program for talented high school juniors and seniors. The program matches the students with mentors in a field that's of special interest to them.
The program, funded in part by a grant from the State Department of Education and a significant endowment gift from UConn trustee William Berkley, was begun in 1996 to help prepare talented high school students for college life and help sort out their academic interests.
It also was intended to encourage such students to make UConn their first choice when applying to college.
Now there's a growing cohort of talented students on campus who might have gone elsewhere, if not for the experiences they had and the contacts they made through Mentor Connection.
When he was still in high school, Greenstein decided to participate in Mentor Connection because he didn't want to take another job pumping gas.
"After my junior year of high school, I was looking for something unique to do with my summer," he says. Not looking forward to the prospect of another summer working at the gas station where he had spent the previous summer, he discussed some options with his high school guidance counselor.
"The University of Connecticut Mentor Connection was the first thing that came up, and it looked much better than the other options," Greenstein says. "I liked the idea of an experience that would help prepare me for the future, both for social and academic university life."
The program did exactly that, he says: "During Mentor Connection, I got excited by the idea of research. I had an opportunity to work with Dr. Basu, Dr. Rusling, and the late Dr. Epling. It was quite exciting for a high school student to be able to interact with such respected and talented faculty. After that experience, I knew that a career in lab science suited me."
When he enrolled at UConn, he was looking for something more rooted in the life sciences than the organic chemistry he had studied with his mentors, and he ended up focusing on biochemistry, gaining invaluable research experience in the lab of Debra Kendall, his thesis advisor and university scholar advisor.
Greenstein says the UConn Mentor Connection was critical in launching his college career.
"Mentor Connection connects motivated teens with academic role models," he says. "It helps a high school student develop the skills he or she needs to excel in a university setting: living with peers, making decisions about majors, interacting with faculty, and enjoying learning," he says, adding that his decisions to attend the program and the University were some of the best decisions he ever made.
Shannon McAvoy, another student from the1997 Mentor Connection Program, says she heard about in Mentorship Connection during her junior year at Windham High School.
"I desperately wanted to travel for the summer and my guidance counselor suggested that I apply for the UConn Mentor Connection. I made it just before the deadline."
McAvoy took part in the archaeology program with mentor Kevin McBride, working with grad students doing fieldwork. "We took a bus at about six every morning to Foxwoods to dig," she says. The site had been excavated a few years earlier but needed to be cleaned and documented. The students also found some fragments of shell and artifacts.
Although McAvoy decided archeology was not the career for her, she values the opportunity. "It was a great experience because we were doing the same quality of work as the grads were doing," she adds.
She is not the only Mentor Connection student still at UConn to have a change of heart about what subject to pursue in college. Others changed their majors after a semester or two in their initial program. The opportunity to find out more about a topic at an early stage can be invaluable in clarifying students' academic and career plans and can help them avoid a time-consuming pursuit of what might turn out to be the wrong path for them.
But even those who changed their ideas about their initial choice of subject area - and the Mentor Connection site they chose - said the program was an exciting educational experience that helped them define their interests and goals.
Like Greenstein and a number of other current students who were interviewed for this article, McAvoy says participating in Mentor Connection was a significant factor in her decision to choose UConn for her undergraduate studies.
Although she was thinking of applying to a community college to study art, with encouragement from some senior administrators and trustee Berkley, whom she met at a Mentor Connection reunion, McAvoy applied to UConn and she hasn't looked back.
"Being at UConn has really been a wonderful experience," she says. "I made a friend in Mentor Connection who lived down the hall from me my freshman year and we've stayed in touch ever since."
McAvoy also found another mentor, Peter Morenus, the photographer in University Communications, where she has worked since her freshman year. Her tasks have included working as a student photographer for theAdvance.
"Peter has really been significant in my education here," she says. "I've learned so much about photography from him."
Shanika Renfro is a sophomore majoring in psychology. She learned about Mentor Connection through her guidance counselor at Middletown High School.
Shanika chose the chemistry site and worked with the late Professor Gary Epling, and with graduate students of Professor Ashis Basu.
"It was a great experience to be in the chemistry lab, and to learn about DNA and how to find mutations," Renfro says. In Epling's lab, she learned about the way different dyes in clothing, food, tissue, and other substances are related to cancer.
"We worked with a graduate student who showed us her experiments on the ways different lights can find different cancerous substances in dyes," she adds. "I really bonded with a graduate student I met and still say 'hi' to her to this day."
Renfro decided to come to UConn because of some of the people she met during the program. At that time, she wanted to be either a pediatrician or a physical therapist.
"While I was at Mentor Connection, I met with the head of the physical therapy department who told us what majoring in physical therapy was all about. But then I got to see a cadaver and I realized that physical therapy was not for me," Renfro says.
"Later, I listened to Dr. George Allen, a speaker who came to the Mentor Connection, and after hearing him speak, I knew that psychology was for me."
Renfro says she would recommend the Mentor Connection program to any high school student who wants to learn what college life is all about:
"I would definitely encourage high school students to do Mentor Connection," says Renfro, "because it gives them a chance to be away from home for three weeks on a college campus, meet new people and make new friends, get to know college professors and graduate students, and get a taste of what college life at UConn is really like."