What STEPS means to me

Jessica Thomas

At Horace Mann, only about 5% of students identify as black. As one of the few, I wanted to use my experiences to help younger students. STEPS (Students Together Empowering People of Color Successfully), is a mentor program in which younger students of color are paired with high school mentors, who help guide them through middle school. It was founded two years ago by Devereaux Mackey and when she graduated, I was honored to have been appointed its next student leader to oversee the program.
As a mentor, my purpose was to serve as a resource in guiding my mentee through their middle school experience by being someone who they could reach out to and depend on. I was responsible for assisting my mentee with issues such as academic needs and navigating the social component of being a student of color at a predominantly white independent school. As the student leader, my purpose is to oversee the whole program and work on shaping it and laying the foundation so that the program will continue to grow and flourish when I leave. With the help of our advisors, I help run and organize our wider STEPS meetings, attend our weekly Thursday check-ins, and make sure that the mentors and mentees are meeting regularly. I also serve as a resource for both mentors and mentees to make sure that everyone is benefiting from this program in some regard and is being supported in every possible way. For mentees, I am another person they can go to for advice or aide with any difficulties that may arise. For mentors, I am a peer they can reach out to for help within or outside of the program.
Even though my role as the leader is to provide insight and support, I benefit so much from being a part of STEPS. The way in which our mentees act so carefree in our meetings gives me this space where I feel as though I can also relax. I feel like as a high schooler, I can become very focused on my work and consumed by stress that I don’t take the time that I need to take a breather and refresh. But, the mentees are so full of joy and light, and it makes me so happy to see them laughing, playing, having fun, and cracking jokes. In addition to that, as a black student, there are times where I feel as though I have to work twice as hard to reach the same levels as some of my other counterparts and to be high achieving; part of what comes with being in the minority is this feeling as though you have to represent all students of the same identity. So, for me, being in STEPS relieves part of that extra pressure. I look forward to our meetings where I can take a moment and focus on the present and just existing and living.
Our mentors are also incredible in the way that they have stepped up to fill this large role and missing piece in our community. For many years, students of color got through Horace Mann by creating their own informal support systems, and it’s nice to have a more formal space for that support where we have access to the school’s incredible resources. The program truly would not exist without them. I feel so grateful to have such an amazing group of kids who volunteer their time to help the younger students. I truly feel like I can depend on them.