Two Wollongong AIME mentors spent two weeks crossing Texas, in search of the next generation of student leaders who will make a difference in the lives of American teens.
L ucy Marvell and Brenden Newton had 24 hours to pack a bag and make their way to the airport.
The destination? Texas, in the United States’ Deep South. The mission? To convince college students throughout the state to join AIME and help change the world.
For Brenden and Lucy, who represent the vivacious, friendly, and enthusiastic Wollongong-based AIME chapter, it was all part of working for an organisation that is using education and the power of mentoring to transform the lives of disadvantaged youth.
“Our CEO [Jack Manning Bancroft] put out the idea that he wanted to send a bunch of us AIME workers over to the United States. We were aiming to walk into the offices of US colleges and convince them in a few minutes why they should be involved in AIME,” says Lucy, a few weeks after landing back in Australia.
“It sounded like something I wanted to be part of. We had 24 hours’ notice of which plane to catch. We were hoping to go to the Deep South, because of all the history in that area, and we ended up in Texas, which was just incredible.”
But first, what is AIME? The program was founded by Jack Manning Bancroft in 2005, to build a bridge between university students and high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Volunteer mentors from university pair with high school students, with the aim of ending inequality and bringing the powerful and powerless together. They dream big and work hard.
AIME – which stands for the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience – has been successfully implemented at universities across Australia, with the organisation now working to replicate the mentoring model throughout the world.
That all begins with the US initiative. Brenden and Lucy were part of a team of AIME mentors from Australia who were tasked with the job of finding 200 students in the US who were ready to make a difference.
The new mentors – known as Hooded Scholars – will fly to Australia, on a chartered AIME flight, and take part in the Festival of Mentoring in February, before taking their new skills back home to the US and shaking things up in their own backyard.
“If we can find 200 student leaders, who can be our next mentors, they we can get 20,000 youth out of educational disadvantage with just one flight,” says Brenden, who is Centre Manager at UOW AIME, which was established in 2008. “The aim is to walk into campuses and find students who want to change the world.”
Back to Brenden and Lucy’s excellent adventure. For two whirlwind weeks, they zigzagged throughout the Lone Star State, crashing on people’s couches and knocking – literally – on the doors of colleges and universities. They were part of a crew of 10 from Australia who were covering as much space as they could across the country, with other mentors dispatched to the four corners of the US.
“It was completely different, like nowhere I had been before,” Lucy says. “We started in Dallas, went down to Austin, then spent a lot of time in Far East Texas, and then back to Austin. Brenden then went on to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Louisiana.”
Those two weeks were among the best, and most transformative, of Lucy and Brenden’s lives. Their guerilla approach meant that at times they couldn’t get an audience with some of the more affluent universities, but they found gems in some of the most unlikely of places, young students at unassuming colleges who were ready for change.
They were welcomed with open arms at historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs as they are known, which were established before the end of segregation in the US and served the African American communities. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolished segregated education, and led to greater diversity on campuses, HBCUs have remained an important part of the educational landscape in the country.
“Some of the schools were really rundown, but they were so warm with their welcomes and the reception was incredible,” Lucy says. “We went to Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and we couldn’t believe it was a university. It looked like a little shack at the end of the road. But it was a hidden gem and the students were so open to the message.
“At Southwestern Christian College, we pitched our message within two minutes, and we were given a tour of the campus, there was a choir singing for us. It was the highlight of the trip. It was amazing to find this sense of community.”
Brenden and Lucy have both been working for AIME for a number of years, and they are incredibly effusive in their praise for the organisation.
“AIME really connected with me when I finished my degree,” says Brenden, who graduated from UOW with a Bachelor of Health and Physical Education in 2013 and is a former professional big wave bodyboarder.
“My wife grew up on the South Coast, in Culburra. I used to go back there from the age of 19 and take a lot of the local kids surfing. A lot of the kids came from multigenerational disadvantage and we really created a strong, positive connection. I loved spending time with them, just getting out in the surf, and learning more about their lives.
“I studied teaching but I was restless and I wanted to work outside the school system.”
As AIME’s Centre Manager for the past five years, Brenden says he has grown into the job, and relishes the opportunity to use his communication skills and ability to connect with young students. He particularly loves the opportunity to encourage Indigenous youth to imagine what they could achieve in their lives, then help them on the path to realise their dreams. But that empowerment and connection goes both ways. Brenden says the students he has helped to mentor over the years have, in turn, had an incredible impact on his own life and sense of self.
“The world operates systematically and bureaucratically,” he says. “It puts people in a position of disadvantage or a position of power. With AIME, we get to break that system and help the powerless become powerful.”
It is a thought echoed by Lucy, who is studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Indigenous Studies and Sustainable Development. She first became involved with AIME as a volunteer mentor before becoming Program Manager.
“Once I started volunteering, I was hooked. AIME is designed to get you out of your comfort zone, it has an incredible vibe. You are helping the students to grow and change, but you grow as well,” she says. “University students get as much out of the program as the kids do. It is a two-way learning process.
“I would never do a 9 to 5 job that wasn’t helping people.”
For Brenden and Lucy, the recruitment trip was unlike any other, one they could never have experienced by simply being tourists in the US.
“It was an amazing experience,” Lucy says. “We discovered students who had so much potential, and we got to help them create amazing careers and opportunities for others. And they welcomed us in their lives and their homes. This would never have happened if these two crazy Australians hadn’t dropped into their tiny towns in Texas.”
Brenden, who has been on two mentor discovery trips to the US in the past few months, was blown away by how many young students were itching to make a change, but just didn’t know where to start. Meeting inspiring and engaged students, such as Tre Richardson from Southern Cross University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a Hooded Scholar recruit, gave Brenden the faith that they were on the right track.
“Each day we had so many students say, ‘I can’t believe I met you today. This is what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it’.”