The program, now in its 16th year, has provided programs, services and advocacy for more than 3,200 Red Raiders from underrepresented groups.
When Candice Laster arrived at Texas Tech University in fall 2002, she only knew one person in Lubbock. That November, she joined 45 of her peers as part of the first cohort of protégés in The Lauro Cavazos & Ophelia Powell-Malone Mentoring Program (Mentor Tech).
Fifteen years later, in her first year as the director of learning assistance programs at the Marsha Sharp Center for Student Athletes, Laster says she can trace much of her success to her participation in the program and the support she received from others in Mentor Tech, including her mentor, Patrice Victor.
“It was a good match,” Laster said. “She was kind of quiet, but she knew a lot. I had a surrogate family created here. I babysat her daughter, she would help me with some of my classes, and we talked about life.”
The program focuses on enhancing the educational experiences of students from underrepresented groups through programs, services, advocacy and campus and community involvement. For Laster, it acted as a safety net during her adjustment from living in Austin to life in Lubbock.
“I'm not sure it would have been harder,” Laster said. “It probably would have taken me longer to adjust. For new students who come in and are overwhelmed with everything and wondering what the Texas Tech experience will be, Mentor Tech will help alleviate a lot of that anxiety, empower them and provide them with the resources necessary to be successful.”
Having Victor, then a staff member in the Center for Campus Life, as her mentor also jumpstarted what would eventually turn into a long-term career with Texas Tech.
“Being a student assistant in Campus Life turned into a position as a graduate assistant, which then turned into a full-time job,” Laster said. “She just knew who to introduce me to, and I'm not quite sure where I would have been without her. I wouldn't have known where to go for a job that would fit my interests if it weren't for Patrice.”
More than 3,200 students have benefitted in similar ways since Mentor Tech began in November 2002 with just 46 students and more than 100 mentors. The program has grown throughout the years, with a minimum of 125 new students accepted each year, and provides participants with weekly academic and professional development workshops, networking events and on- and off-campus cultural and social events.
“It's an important resource for students who are coming to Texas Tech not knowing anyone, or maybe only knowing a few people,” Laster said. “Maybe they're first-generation; maybe they know a whole bunch of people, but they want to create their own identity here. Mentor Tech gives students the opportunity to create that identity, to blaze their trail and to become who they want to be.”
Students enter the program as protégés, with a list of requirements to fulfill throughout the school year. These include attending events and maintaining consistent contact with their mentor and fellow protégés who serve as Protégé Advisory Committee (PAC) leaders.
“The structure is different now,” Laster said. “The availability of workshops for the students has been one of the biggest changes, not only for freshmen, but also for upperclassmen. Networking and other events are tailoring more to the growing needs of the protégés. I think the students are a little bit more vocal as to what they need. The first year, I felt like a lot of emphasis was placed on the mentor-protégé relationship. I latched onto my mentor, it was just me and her, and we did it.”
Once a student has successfully completed a year as a protégé, they have the opportunity to become a PAC leader. PAC leaders are assigned a cohort of no more than 11 protégés and serve as peer mentors to those students, most of whom are within similar majors. They also help organize and execute events and assist in the Mentor Tech office.
Texas Tech and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center graduate students, faculty and staff participate in the program as mentors. Based on shared interests and educational backgrounds, mentors are matched with up to two protégés for the academic school year and serve as the main source of support in the program for many protégés.
After completing a year as a mentor, these participants have the opportunity to serve as a Mentor Cluster Leader (MCL). In addition to serving as a mentor to protégés, MCLs lead and support a group of their fellow mentors.
Giving and getting support
Some protégés find their participation leads them all the way to the role of MCL. That's what happened to Laster, who served officially in all roles except for one.
“I was an unofficial PAC member,” she recalled. “I helped as much as I could when I was at events, just because a lot of my friends were PAC leaders.”
When she graduated in 2006, director Cory Powell told her she should become a mentor.
“I said, ‘No, I think I still need a mentor!'” Laster recalled. “But he encouraged me, so I became a mentor. Actually having to share wisdom with someone else in an official capacity was the hardest change. My first protégé came in ready with thousands of questions, and I told her I didn't know all the answers, but I would do my best to help her with her transition.”
Since then, Laster has completed two master's degrees while serving several years as a mentor and an MCL, providing guidance to numerous protégés and fellow mentors.
“I distinctly remember Candice being very influential,” said Jourdan B. Scruggs, one of Laster's protégés. “I remember going to her office and we would have whole life conversations.”
Scruggs, who graduated from the College of Media and Communication with a bachelor's degree in 2013 and a master's degree in 2015, entered the program as a protégé during her freshman year in fall 2010. Her interactions with Laster ranged from trips to T.J. Maxx, to conversations in Laster's office that covered everything from a disagreement with a significant other to dealing with a graduate school professor.
“She would say, ‘Let's calm down. How do we talk this out?'” Scruggs recalled. “She is very much someone you can talk to about anything, a listening ear, very receptive and open-minded, but she's also not going to hesitate in letting you know the truth. She has your best interests in mind at all times, and she will definitely tell you, ‘Hey maybe that's not the best idea. Here's a better way to go about it.'”
Whitney Garnett, another protégé, said Laster never seemed to mind when Garnett would
ask questions, even if they were not strictly school-related.
“She let me know she was a resource for me, and she would be there whether I had questions about school or if I needed help with my personal life,” Garnett said. “She kept in contact with me on a regular basis, whether it was through phone calls, text messages or meeting up at Mentor Tech functions. She was always willing to provide her wisdom and insight, and I didn't have to worry about her sugar-coating her answers, which I greatly appreciated.”
During her sophomore year, Garnett said she faced one of the most difficult times of her life. The experience made her realize how important her relationship with Laster was.
“I became pregnant with twins, and I was a single mother almost from the beginning,” Garnett said. “On Oct. 29, I had to have an emergency C-section due to me developing pre-eclampsia. I was in the hospital for three days and my twins were in the hospital for eight.”
Laster visited Garnett at the hospital and told her she had emailed all of Garnett's professors to inform them of the situation.
“It was such a burden off my shoulders because I knew I needed to finish the semester,” Garnett said. “I had my twins Wednesday and was back at class the following Monday. I just remember Candice continuously checking on me during that time and encouraging me.”
While Laster was not the only one who supported Garnett at the time, she also was one of the people who encouraged Garnett to stay and finish her degree.
“While I have many awesome memories with Candice, the fact that she was there at one of my lowest points is what I remember and appreciate most about her,” Garnett said.
Garnett pushed through, graduating with a degree in management and finance in December 2010. She returned to Texas Tech in August 2013, graduated from the School of Law in December 2015 and passed the Texas Bar Exam the following February. She now serves as an assistant district attorney in Lubbock.
“Programs like Mentor Tech provide an invaluable resource to students who may never have those resources available to them otherwise,” Garnett said. “I believe the people I met and resources I had access to because of programs like Mentor Tech helped me graduate from Texas Tech despite the challenges I faced.”
The program's focus on underrepresented groups creates a diverse community of participants who many times share similar backgrounds and academic and professional goals. Scruggs and Garnett said they found this kind of community significant both during and after their time at Texas Tech.
“It is incredibly important for Mentor Tech to be accessible to all Texas Tech students, but what makes it great is it specifically keeps minority students in mind,” Scruggs said. “I know as a young African-American female traveling to Lubbock by myself, and knowing one person, to find a home with other people like me and with like-minded goals was very important. We weren't a clique, but we were a group of our own, we could stand on our own and we were definitely prepared for life after Texas Tech.”
Garnett said she appreciates the university's initiative to embrace diversity across campus.
“When a campus embraces diversity, it allows the students there to become more comfortable in participating in classes and social organizations,” Garnett said. “The Mentor Tech program opened many doors for me as a student, as far as getting to know what was available to me as a student, getting to know the Texas Tech faculty and staff, as well as allowing me to meet other people of color and with a similar economic status as me.”
Workshops and networks
Attending Mentor Tech academic and career workshops throughout the year gives participants even more opportunities to grow their networks. Each workshop includes a free meal and on- and off-campus experts who can provide information about topics like attending graduate school, finding interview and resume help or getting a tutor.
“The workshops are geared toward the students being successful in school and after graduation,” Garnett said. “They taught us different ways to study, how to navigate financial aid, how to deal with stress and time management.”
In her current position, Laster said she has a renewed appreciation for the resources Mentor Tech provides.
“I see it all the time,” Laster said. “Students come to college and don't necessarily know how college works, how to study, how to communicate well face-to-face with people of authority. Those workshops get them away from their phone, around their peers and in front of professionals who can help them grow in the areas they need. They may not think they need those skills now, but hindsight is 20/20. It has kept a lot of people from giving up.”
Participants are encouraged to broaden their social circle with people they can count on for support, guidance and opportunities. Because PAC leaders, mentors and workshop speakers come from a variety of departments, industries and educational, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, students also have access to one of the largest and most diverse networks on and off campus.
“I think what is gained most from Mentor Tech is the opportunity to network,” Garnett said. “Like the saying goes, ‘It's not what you know, but who you know.' While not applicable in every situation, it definitely has proven itself true over and over again.”
Connections like these led to various internships and student positions for Scruggs on campus and a position as a long-term substitute teacher in the Lubbock Independent School District.
They also allowed her the opportunity to meet and sit down with visiting influential speakers and celebrities. Each spring, the program hosts the Annual Celebration Banquet to recognize the accomplishments of program participants and honor graduating seniors. Past keynote speakers have included award-winning actresses Tatyana Ali, Taraji P. Henson and Nia Long; social activist and author Cornel West; and Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith.
Scruggs, who also served as a PAC leader, said the program showed her the importance of building meaningful relationships. The skills she acquired as a PAC leader, while not always the easiest to learn, are many she continues to find valuable in her current position as a communications specialist II at Prairie View A&M University.
“I found out the hard way that checking in on someone right before a report is due is not the best way to build a relationship,” Scruggs said. “It helps me now in my professional career because I live a very busy life working in communications and have interns to lead.”
Leading and mentoring
Protégés are not the only ones who gain from participating in Mentor Tech. Laster said serving as a mentor and an MCL has been just as rewarding as participating as a student.
“Your protégés keep you young and teach you more about yourself than you're sometimes able to teach them,” Laster said. “The best part is when you see the lightbulb go off in their mind and they figure out part of their life journey, or they get an internship, or they get into graduate school or they graduate from law school while raising their twins. Knowing that a conversation you had, a meal you shared or a shoulder you provided when they were sad and needed to cry may have helped on that journey or to get them to that point of success, it's such a rewarding experience.
“You'll never know the impact you can make, and although you may not feel like you're prepared to be a mentor, you have way more to offer than you realize. Real mentorship is reciprocal. You're working together, you're learning together, you're growing together and figuring out life together. That is why it's worth it. And, it's just fun. The program is fun, the staff is fun and the students are hilarious.”
Powell said being director of the program is the most rewarding experience in which he has ever been involved.
“The most refreshing parts of this are the successes our students have and that they are living lives they did not even fathom possible for them,” Powell said. “Knowing in some way, form or fashion that we had a role in that makes it all worth it.”
Laster, Scruggs and Garnett are just three of the thousands of examples of success to come out of Mentor Tech over the years. Powell said he hopes to continue growing Mentor Tech while also finding ways to build more connections with program alumni who have graduated from Texas Tech.
“We are trying to reinvigorate connections with and celebrate our alumni and others who have reached success,” Powell said. “My commitment to alumni, students and the mentors who serve them is to do my best to offer the best services to them.”
Even now, Laster keeps in touch with protégés, PAC leaders and mentors who have moved on from Texas Tech. About six months ago, Scruggs sent Laster a photo of her best friend, another of Laster's protégés, both with new infants.
“She has been there from start to finish,” Scruggs said. “From me being a brand new baby freshman on campus not knowing one person to my graduation to now, she has been there.”
Laster and the rest of her Mentor Tech network are family, Scruggs said. Like Garnett and many of the other students who have completed the program. Scruggs said the program continues to be a part of her life.
“My time at Texas Tech is special to me,” Scruggs said. “It's not just the place where I received both of my degrees; it's my foundation. The Mentor Tech program exposed me to many things, and I had various opportunities for personal and academic growth. Whatever I have been doing and whatever place I have been both academically and professionally, it all draws back to Mentor Tech.
“God places people in your life for a season, a reason or a lifetime. I believe Mentor Tech helped me grow as a person, become a servant-leader and help those around me.”