When Donna Imadi, a sophomore majoring in global affairs and conflict analysis at George Mason University, was a senior in high school, she was assigned a class project to address problems in the local community. Imadi recognized that at-risk high schoolers had a need for a more stable support system.
Imadi noted that in her community of Fairfax County, Virginia, budget cuts were threatening to curtail after-school organizations and activities, which would disproportionately impact lower-income students. She found that, due to changing demographic trends, school-led social programs were not meeting student needs.
Even in her own school, Imadi saw that juniors and seniors would often lack the skills that they needed for success, so she decided that she wanted to create a mentorship outreach program targeted towards at-risk high school students.
Imadi pitched the program to the school board of Fairfax County Public Schools and worked with the then Associate Superintendent, Linda Burke, to develop InvestinYOUth.
She lobbied the idea at the Virginia General Assembly and presented research showcasing the benefits a mentorship program would have in Fairfax County. She was able to form a partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools, which gave Imadi the opportunity to launch the InvestinYOUth program at a local high school.
InvestinYOUth launched at Mountain View Alternative High School in Centreville, Virginia. Imadi stressed the difficulties she had in picking the location for the program’s founding but ultimately decided that Mountain View demonstrated the most need for InvestinYOUth’s services.
Imadi found one factor that really made her choose that specific school. “The school had a disproportionately lower graduation rate than the rest of Fairfax County,” she said.
The InvestinYOUth program currently focuses on two areas, mentorship and social programming. Currently, the program features 20 mentors from George Mason University. The process to become a mentor with InvestinYOUth is an arduous one, involving an application, background check and completion of a training program.
Imadi highlighted that, although there were some recommendations for mentors, such as a 3.0 GPA, anyone was eligible to become a mentor with InvestinYOUth. Applications are looked at holistically, with a focus on examining the background and life stories of the applicant.
Mentors with InvestinYOUth include military veterans, transfer students and students who have taken gap years or semesters away from their education before coming to George Mason University.
As to why mentors are chosen holistically, Imadi said, “The mentors have diverse journeys and stories for how they made it to George Mason. We want to show students that there are traditional paths but there are also untraditional paths that can be taken that will also lead to success.”
The mentors meet with students at Mountain View during their lunch periods to discuss students’ goals and to encourage career planning.
“We’re trying to show students that if college is not an option for you, there are other options, such as CTE programs or getting a job after high school graduation. Everyone has their own dreams, which is perfectly fine and valid, as long as you are working to be the best version of yourself,” Imadi said.
Imadi mentioned her concerns with the school-to-prison pipeline, which primarily affects lower-income and minority students, and her desire to have InvestinYOUth mentors serve as positive role models to the high schoolers utilizing her organization’s services.
Imadi wants InvestinYOUth’s mentees to recognize that “someone is there for them and someone cares about them outside of the community that they’re in.”
On the social programming side, InvestinYOUth’s programs seek to reach a diverse student body. Previous programs have included career workshops and collaborations with Mountain View’s student government. Recently, the InvestinYOUth mentors assisted Mountain View to host a talent show.
Imadi is planning on adding a guest speaker series to the social programs that InvestinYOUth offers. For Black History Month, Imadi invited local community leaders to come to Mountain View to talk about overcoming obstacles and the importance of resiliency. More speakers will be invited as the program continues to expand.
Since the program is in its second full semester, Imadi is focusing on growing the mentorship aspect of the program, but she does plan to add tutoring services as part of InvestinYOUth as the program expands.
Currently, social program sessions average around 50 or more participants per event, with the launch event seeing an attendance of over 200 students, staff and community members.
Social programs are targeted to the entire Mountain View community, with one-on-one mentorship sessions focusing on a more selective group of at-risk Mountain View students. More students will be able to receive mentorship services after InvestinYOUth selects its newest class of mentors in March 2018.
Although InvestinYOUth is currently situated solely in the Mountain View community, Imadi’s overarching goal for the program is to see it expand to high schools nationwide that struggle with the similar issues of low graduation rates and test scores.
A nationwide move, Imadi believes, will give at-risk students a support system that is currently lacking.