By Matt Kurnick

(October 14, 2008) Some might argue that the best part about college is the people. Others might argue that an education is more important.

The friends you make while living in the residence halls, the relationships that start in class, or out at a party can often end up lasting a lifetime. You may learn important lessons during lectures or working on projects for classes in sociology or world studies, but sometimes it is the out of class experience that makes the biggest lasting impression.

In 1992, Jessica (Barajas) Rivera, then an Illinois State University freshman, joined the College of Education’s Multicultural Mentorship Program (MMP) and was introduced to her mentee Lavaris Johnson, a third grader in the Chicago Public Schools.

Rivera knew immediately the newly initiated friendship would be a lasting one. What she didn’t know was the lesson he was about to teach her.

“I am not sure why, but we just clicked right away,” Rivera, a ’96 College of Education graduate, recalled of her introduction to Johnson.

The two stayed in contact over the years through numerous letters, phone calls, and visits.

“I remember my letters always contained positive words that let him know I was always thinking of him, his schooling, and his family,” Rivera said. “I wanted to make sure he was not only achieving academically, but that he was also becoming a positive member of society.”

Then in May, some 12 years after her graduation, Rivera received an invitation from her mentee.

“I was moved to tears when I received the invitation to Lavaris’ (college) graduation,” Rivera said. “I called my cousins, my mom, and everyone else who had ever met him to tell them about his success.”

The tears Rivera shed expressed the extreme joy of seeing her mentee achieve this milestone goal. The tears were also a realization of the positive effect of their relationship starting from when Johnson was in grade school, through middle and high school.

“He is like a brother to me and I wanted everyone to know that he was academically successful,” Rivera said.

The message Johnson sent was not out of the blue. The improbable pair stayed in touch since Rivera’s graduation despite the two living very separate lives.

“Lavaris and I were close while he was growing up,” Rivera said of the unique bond the two formed; a bond that surpassed any and all expectations of the MMP. “He spent a few weeks in the summer with my family and I would make frequent trips to visit him and his family.

“Now we call each other and chat when we can. We try to stay in touch even though we lead two very different lives. He is a young man just out of college and I am a mom and wife. Our lives are both busy, but we find time for each other.”

It was the small town, Latin American woman’s family that helped motivate her to join the Multicultural Mentorship Program that pairs ISU students with students from Chicago Public Schools. The program, started in 1992 by Norvella Carter and Marilyn Moore, allows ISU teacher candidates to learn about working in culturally diverse settings. The children gain because they know someone who is studying to become a teacher cares directly about them as an individual and are encouraged to think about attending college.

“My family has always instilled the value of education in me and I was hoping I could pass that treasure on to someone else,” Rivera recalled of her reasoning to join the MMP.

“I remember I wanted to join the program so that I could help other minorities like myself. I know that only a small percentage of minorities make it through high school, let alone college.”

Johnson made it through everything, earning a degree in Criminal Justice from Chicago State University.

Rivera teaches at JB Nelson School in Batavia. Throughout the years she has helped many students with everything from spelling to behaving properly in class.

But the one life lesson that Jessica holds closest to her heart is the one she learned while spending time with one of her old friends.

“I value helping others! The Multicultural Mentorship Program and other programs like it (the teacher mentorship program I am in now) values helping others and sharing what you know and have with others. That is what being a teacher is all about!”