IGM representation is dominant in Incentive Mentoring Program
IMP student Tyencia Cannie (center),
Ryan (IMP co-founder)(left) and Sarah
Hemminger (right) at Tynecia’s
graduation from Trinity College.
June 2011-- On a warm spring afternoon, the halls of Dunbar High School, located 2 blocks west of the Hopkins School of Medicine campus, are deserted except for a handful of teen-aged boys, one hobbling on crutches. “It’s about to get hectic,” Sarah Hemminger warns under her breath.
Although she admonishes the guys for being late, she’s secretly proud – and a little amazed – that they’ve shown up at all for this SAT prep session, a group activity sponsored by the Incentive Mentoring Program she founded in 2004 when she was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins. If these individuals did attend school today – and that’s a big if, given that most have racked up many dozens of absences this year and that all are at risk of failing and dropping out – they were dismissed four hours ago, at noon. The fact that they’re back here now, of their own volition, is remarkable.
“I’m going to have to break that up or it’s going to be a disaster,” Sarah says, trailing the group into a noisy classroom that smells like pizza and in which a hand-painted poster promises “ENDLESS HOPE.”
Hemminger is understandably wary. She doesn’t know this group yet: All are freshmen and newly enrolled in the IMP. All are very raw.
“When it’s one kid working with one mentor, or a family of ten mentors working with one kid, those situations are easy to manage,” Hemminger says. “But on days like today when we’re doing a group activity, it can be a bit of a challenge because we have the 10 roughest kids in the entire school, in a room, together.”
Hemminger matter-of-factly instructs the gang to divvy up and find seats at the tables where a handful of their classmates sit sulking, fidgeting, listening to ipods and answering cell phones. IMP volunteer/mentor Julia Dooher, a post-doctoral fellow at Hopkins who works in cancer research, politely but firmly asks, “Will you please put that phone down?”
Twenty-five-year-old Tejasvi Niranjan, a third-year grad student in human genetics at Hopkins, attempts to command attention. Wearing a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with OMIM (Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man), he passes out a sheet of paper and explains that he’d like each individual to take a turn reading from this list of questions and answers about the SAT, a standardized test that’s required by colleges for acceptance.
“I ain’t doin it,” growls the first student who Niranjan invites to read.
A fellow student taunts, “Are you scared?”
Another jeers, “You can’t read!”
“Your mother can’t read,” the first student retorts.
Various voices join in the fray: “I’m not reading. SHHHHH! Could I use the bathroom? I don’t wanna. You lyin’ to me! Why we doin’ this now?”
Niranjan addresses that last question by telling the group that endurance is key to performing well on the SAT: “This is why we are preparing you two years in advance – to help you build your endurance.”
Hemminger corrals a student who’s strutting around the room, guides him into a chair next to her and rests her hand protectively on his shoulder; he’s not going anywhere and neither is she. Meanwhile, Niranjan and Dooher work the crowd, cajoling and challenging each student to participate: “Hey guys, the quicker we’re done, the sooner we eat!”
Eventually, one complies. Then another acquiesces, and another, until nine of the 10 have read. Still, there’s a hold-out; one girl shakes her head in refusal. Finally, she caves to peer pressure. For the next 14 seconds as she reads, there is a remarkable hush; just one student’s tiny, breathy voice. Then, clapping and cheering.
Some victories are small. Others are big, like when a mentor/volunteer advocates on behalf of a student whose family is being evicted; or when a student who almost certainly would have dropped out of high school ultimately graduates -- from college.
This month, Hemminger will be attending commencement ceremonies for some of those who comprised the first IMP student cohort at Dunbar back in 2004. Having claimed them as “family” for the past 7 years – from the time they were sophomores in high school throughout college – it’s no wonder that Hemminger, who is 30, says she feels like a sister to Tynecia who will receive a diploma this weekend from Trinity College in Washington D.C. and to Dhaujee who’ll be graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine the week after.
A we’re-family-so-we’ll-never-ever-give-up-on-you attitude defines the program which focuses on three target areas: academics, community service and leadership. This newest group of IMP students maybe learned a bit about the SAT today, but the real lesson imparted was that no matter what they do, neither Hemminger nor anyone in IMP will go away, so they might as well get on board, even if have to make it difficult at first.
“Conventional wisdom and training and would tell you, why bother with this specific group of students we’re working with,” Hemminger says. “I don’t hold much stock in conventional wisdom.”
As a graduate student of genetics working in Andy McCallion’s lab, Dave Gorkin studies “junk” DNA – those massive portions of the genome long dismissed and disparagingly labeled for having no obviously discernable function. In his precious little spare time, the 28-year-old former high school teacher mentors kids – those perceived dregs from Dunbar who had no discernable future, until IMP entered the picture. Gorkin, who serves as vice chair on the IMP board of directors, has a way of rallying like-minded scientists to the cause.
“I first heard about IMP from Dave when I was applying to graduate schools,” recalls Tejasvi Niranjan who signed up to be a volunteer on the same day that he joined the Human Genetics graduate program in the McKusick Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine two and a half years ago. In the lab, he uses high-throughput sequencing to identify potential causative mutations for autism and intellectual disability. With IMP, he directs SAT training at Dunbar.
“IMP figured heavily into my decision to choose the IGM,” he says. “I wanted an opportunity to give back to the community and no other graduate program I looked into offered volunteering options. I figure that if I can learn to handle Dunbar students, it’ll help prepare me for a professorship, someday.”
Niranjan and Gorkin are just a couple of the dozen-plus human genetics students who have made significant contributions that have shaped not only lives of IMP kids, Hemminger says, but also those of other volunteers as well as the future of the organization.
“The commitment and innovative contributions from IGM students have touched every level of the organization,” Hemminger says. “There is no place in IMP where genetics students aren’t deeply involved.”
Several IGM labs are involved the Diversity and Academic Advancement Summer Institute (DAASI), an IMP program in partnership with Johns Hopkins and Youth Works that places students into research labs during the summer for several hours each day.
“Our IMP student last summer was doing DNA extraction,” says Mariela Zeledon, 25, an IMP mentor who’s a third-year Human Genetics graduate student working in David Valle’s laboratory. “He was a huge help to our lab. I felt like his successes were my successes.”
Gorkin agrees, adding that his IMP experience never fails to lend a vital sense of perspective to the intense slog that is grad school.
“As a middle-year Ph.D. student, my lab work might not always be giving me . . . um, a sense of accomplishment,” Gorkin admits. “The nature of science is that it doesn’t work more often than it does. I learn so much from our kids, who have perseverance like you wouldn’t believe.
“Given the harrowing experiences that the IMP kids face on a daily basis just trying to survive in this tough urban environment, it’s just silly to think of a failed experiment as the end of the world, or to worry too much about not acing an exam.”
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