In the summer of 2011, students formed a peer-mentoring group to address structural factors that affect the retention and graduation rates of black men. With a $5,000 grant from Pepsi Inc., SWAG: Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate was piloted in academic year 2011-12.
“SWAG was formed to help build a collaborative and supportive environment through which black, Caribbean and African male students develop as scholars, community advocates and individuals,” said Kendrick Coq ’15, SWAG co-chair. “Mentors and mentees also learn useful skills to help guide them further in their careers.”
SWAG has now completed its first year as a university-supported organization, holding a ceremony April 27 to recognize the achievements of its members and thank those who were influential along the way. This past year, 30 mentoring pairings were made, with two mentees (first-year, sophomore and transfer students) paired with each mentor (juniors, seniors and graduate students).
“SWAG has had a remarkable year,” said Renee Alexander, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs. “The success and popularity of this program keeps growing, and I am delighted with the work of its leaders, Alicia Torrey, Risë Nelson Burrow and Leon Lawrence, to continue to advance the program’s impact and reach.”
SWAG members meet weekly in large and small groups to build relationships and participate in such bonding experiences as paintball, bowling and community-service activities.
“Our service events are predicated on inspiring communities and making a difference,” said Thaddeus Talbot ’15, SWAG co-chair. “Recently, we worked with Burmese children at the Northside Community Center, teaching them the essentials of personal wellness. The most refreshing part of our trip was seeing the youth laugh, smile, and enjoy their Saturday morning. From the experience, we developed a deeper passion for community service.”
SWAG mentors say:
“I've achieved a sort of validation that I could have only gotten from positively affecting someone else. Doing good for someone else can be so simple as talking, yet so rewarding.”
“The SWAG program has helped me build friendship, it has helped me influence other people, including my mentees, and has taught me the value and impact that mentorship can have.”
“Because of my mentor training in SWAG, I was able to develop better interpersonal skills, which is useful in my everyday life at Cornell.”
“Just hearing my mentee say that I was a positive influence in his life, and just knowing that I was a small piece of what made his Cornell experience great, really means a lot to me.”
“Through my mentorship in SWAG, I have learned how to be a better mentor and more useful resource for young men. … SWAG has allowed me to develop these critical skills and ultimately shape how I can impact the lives of others.”
But of greatest impact are the relationships built through SWAG, say Talbot and Coq. For example, a student athlete who was seeking guidance after having a rough first year was paired with a graduate student mentor and subsequently performed better academically, including earning a perfect score on an exam. Another student thought about transferring from Cornell after experiencing tremendous social and economic pressures. However, his SWAG mentor encouraged him to stay. That student has completed an internship at Google and is building an investment fund at Cornell.
“I believe that those critical friendships are invaluable and can be some of the most important relationships that you build in college. I will always reflect positively on the brotherhood that I have had the opportunity to share with the gentlemen of SWAG,” said one SWAG member.
SWAG benefits mentors as well as mentees, building their interpersonal and mentoring skills. The 13 SWAG mentors who are seniors will graduate this month.
According to Talbot and Coq, a number of Cornell students have already expressed an interest in being a mentor next year. Applications for mentors and mentees will be available on a new SWAG website, to become live at swagcornell.com this summer.
SWAG members have also gained through the networking the program brings, including internships and summer work at such companies as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Ernst and Young and Northwestern Mutual, as well as through tutoring high school students from Harlem with James Schechter, director of Cornell University Summer College.
SWAG is working with Cornell Career Services (CCS) to initiate a career development plan that will include SWAG-specific professional development events. SWAG is also developing a portfolio of resumes that will be posted on the CCS and SWAG websites. With additional Cornell support, SWAG leaders plan to enhance its pool of mentors and expand its partnerships beyond the university.
Thaddeus Talbot and Kendrick Coq provided all background and SWAG member feedback for this article.