An academic mentor is someone who can help a student not only with their homework, but with some of the emotional and social challenges the student is experiencing outside of school. Often, it’s this second component of mentoring that proves to be the most defining. Shelby Riley saw this impact as a volunteer with Boston Partners in Education and in her subsequent career.

Shelby was a City Connects Coordinator at the Thomas Edison K-8 School in Brighton. City Connects works to make sure that students with needs are connected to the resources that can best help them. “My job before this was working in home therapy for early intervention, which is for children with special needs,” she explains.

Initially wanting a career change, Shelby was inspired by her mother, a school teacher, to pursue another role. “I’ve known for a while that I love public schools,” she says. “I’d done substitute teaching, I’d volunteered in schools, and I wanted to get back to that. So, I found Boston Partners online as a volunteer opportunity.”

“Without these partners and services, we wouldn’t function as a school. We would not be able to provide our students with the opportunities that we do without having that connection. Our teachers would be really burnt out, so we are very fortunate. Boston Partners makes my job easier.”

Though she was familiar with the Boston Public Schools, Shelby learned a lot about challenges that BPS students face at the Jackson-Mann Elementary School where she was placed as a volunteer. “It was just a completely different school environment than I grew up in,” she shares. There were hallway classrooms with dividers, so there were distractions such as hearing classes walking through the halls. “But the kids were so resilient. It was almost like it didn’t faze them,” Shelby reflects.

Like many of our volunteers, Shelby mentored multiple students throughout the week. She discovered that problems at home contributed to some of the students’ struggles in the classroom. She found out one of her girls had recently been placed in foster care. When Shelby asked about her family, the girl was open and honest about it. Despite the situation at home, Shelby was proud her student advocated for herself.

“She was going through a lot, so her opening up and having the courage to share that was pretty profound. She said ‘Hey, I really need help with this math. I don’t understand it,’” shares Shelby.

Many students in the Boston Public Schools face similar challenges and deal with difficult problems on a daily basis that many people don’t encounter, even as adults. Shelby had some previous experience working with young children with trauma, but insisted that the training provided to her by Boston Partners was also helpful.

The trainings are about preparing volunteers for real situations that happen on a daily basis. They become aware of what it really is to be a student in the Boston Public Schools—what they go home to, what they see in their neighborhoods, and what violence they may have witnessed or experienced.

Once these children realize someone cares about them, they feel less isolated and more motivated to be successful. “It really takes time, but it just makes a huge emotional impact on these kids. Without volunteer mentors, I don’t know how our school would function,” Shelby says. Shelby’s role as a City Connects Coordinator has given her a great perspective on how Boston Partners and other local nonprofits continue to support schools, but it has also prepared her for success as an academic mentor. We are very grateful to have partners like Shelby and City Connects to help us match students with the additional attention that is right for them.