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Criminal Justice Students Learn by Mentoring At-Risk Youth
Article | November 16, 2012 | By James Leonard
CSU Stanislaus senior Jennifer Allgood helped one local high school student find motivation to turn around a failing grade and pass a class needed for graduation. She provided emotional support to another, who was struggling in school while dealing with a death in the family.

Allgood was one of more than 100 students who participated last year in the university's Criminal Justice Mentor Program, an undergraduate requirement for CSU Stanislaus criminal justice students. For Allgood, like many of the mentors, it was more than a grade.

"I felt like I actually helped them," Allgood said. "It's definitely good for the kids and definitely the right approach."

The mentoring program began seven years ago and has grown to serve more than 300 Turlock students per year — from kindergarten through high school — who are struggling with grades, delinquency, truancy and other issues.

Gil Ogden, director of student services for the Turlock Unified School District, said the program has helped more than 3,000 local students since its inception.

"The schools are seeing increased graduation rates, increased attendance, increased academic performance and decreased behavior incidents," Ogden said. "The program has been a significant benefit to the district, and it keeps growing each year."

Ogden and his staff identify at-risk students and approach their parents about the mentoring program. CSU Stanislaus students are assigned to mentor one or more Turlock students, generally meeting with them at their school but occasionally in their homes — with parent approval — or at other locations in town.

The university students must complete 30 hours of mentoring to fulfill their requirement, according to Professor Tim Helfer, who oversees the program with help from the Office of Service Learning. The students write a report at the end of the semester documenting what they did and analyzing the impact their efforts made.

Helfer said for criminal justice majors, the mentoring program can be the single most influential facet of their undergraduate education, because it thrusts them into real-world situations with the opportunity to make a genuine difference in the lives of troubled students.

"If you're going into criminal justice, you have to be able to relate to people and think outside the box," Helfer said. "Everyone has their own personality. You have to figure out what to do next. It gives our students responsibility."

CSU Stanislaus senior Tasha Wentink brought her student to campus to boost motivation and engagement by showing that college "isn't totally scary."

Wentink, who still keeps in touch with her student months after finishing the mentoring program, plans to become a lawyer. She said the ups and downs of the mentoring process — which can often begin with resistance from the at-risk youths — helped her recognize how much she must learn to be ready for any criminal justice career.

"It definitely opened my eyes," Wentink said. "I still need a lot more experience. Before I enter my career, I need to throw myself into that situation a little more so I can understand it from their level."

Like many CSU Stanislaus students who mentor local youth through the program, Jennifer Allgood found the experience nearly as beneficial to herself as it was to the students she mentored.

It might even alter her career path. Allgood said she initially planned to work in probation but now is leaning toward a career working with juveniles.

"I could see that juveniles can change, if they're willing — more so than adults," Allgood said. "That's what I got out of it. These kids just need help." 
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