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First student from Whitley County mentoring program graduates from Cumberlands


Jonathan Nelson is the first participant of the Mentoring Program of University of the Cumberlands and Whitley County High School to graduate from Cumberlands.

WILLIAMSBURG, Ky.—For at least one of the 285 new graduates of University of the Cumberlands who received diplomas on May 9, a college degree truly had been an “impossible dream.” Jonathan Nelson, the son of Barbara and James Heatherly, of Pleasant View, earned a Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in human services and public health. Not only is he his family’s first college graduate but he also is the first participant of the University of the Cumberlands Mentoring Program at Whitley County Middle and High Schools to receive a University of the Cumberlands degree.

In 1994, University of the Cumberlands, in collaboration with the Whitley County School System, developed a program to allow college mentors to work with “at risk” middle school students (mentees) before and after their transition from middle school to high school. The program seeks to identify potential mentees who have the ability for academic success, but due to environmental, social or economical circumstances are considered “at risk” of dropping out of school. Because the Whitley County School System consists of several small community elementary schools and only one each significantly larger middle school and high school, transition to middle and high school can be a source of trauma and frustration for students.

A 2005 graduate of Whitley County High School, Nelson clearly recalled the day his 7th grade homeroom teacher and baseball coach, Lans Lay, called him aside to ask if he would like to participate in the program. €I thought I was in trouble and asked, ‘What did I do?’” Lay is now director of the Youth Service Center at Whitley County Middle School.

Nelson soon learned that the program had a lot to offer to help him succeed in school. He credits Veronica Arthur, Denise Owens and Lay at WCHS, and Debbie Harp, director of Career Services at University of the Cumberlands, with, “Helping me to see that there’s more ‘out there’ than just a workplace.”

Harp said of Nelson, “Jon is a fine young man who had to work hard to succeed in college. His mentor Will McDougall was instrumental in introducing Jon to our campus and helping him believe that he could be anything he wanted to be. The program directors worked closely with Jon as he neared high school graduation because we believed he could indeed make it through college. Needless to say we are very proud of his accomplishments.”

Each year, the mentoring program’s directors seek to match as many new mentor/mentee pairs as possible, with a goal of maintaining 20-25 pairs. The mentors spend a minimum of 4 contact hours twice a month with their mentees, and they follow up on the off weeks with telephone calls or visits to the Whitley County Middle School to have lunch with their mentees. Many mentors volunteer more time than the program mandates. The program also offers occasional large-group activities to enhance the opportunity for social interaction between all mentors and mentees. Between the fall of 2002 and spring of 2007, mentors contributed more than 7, 990 community service hours. The total number of hours contributed since the program’s inception exceeds 20,000.

McDougall, a University of the Cumberlands student from Kenton County, who went on to graduate from Eastern Kentucky University, served for three years as Nelson’s mentor. The two spent time together nearly each day, attending movies or sports events, just “hanging out” and visiting Cumberlands’ campus. Nelson said that it allowed him to see the possibility of attending college himself.

While in high school, Nelson played varsity baseball for four years, but when he enrolled at Cumberlands, he held part-time jobs as he had in high school, which limited his free time. Although he readily admits that English is his most difficult subject, he enjoys reading, especially the works of C.S. Lewis, and he enjoyed working in Cumberlands’ library for two years and two summers during his college career.

Nelson, who attends Mountain Ash Baptist Church, says that his mother has been his inspiration, and although she did not force him to attend college, she stressed the importance of education. He saw how hard she and his father have struggled with limited educations and wanted to succeed.

This summer, Nelson has an internship with the Environmental Office of the Whitley County Health Department. He plans to work in human services and would like to pursue a career in juvenile justice.

As of July 15, 2008, 120 students had participated in the Mentoring Program, with 118 eligible for graduation. Of these, 74, or 63%, had graduated from high school or completed GED. Thirty, or 25.5%, had enrolled in college or some form of higher education program. Statistics for the 2008-09 school year have not yet been released. Nelson has worked hard to become the first UC graduate in this group and hopes to be an inspiration to others who will follow him.

For additional information about the Mentoring Program, contact Director of Career Services Debbie Mills Harp at University of the Cumberlands, 539-4230, or Youth Service Center Director Lansford Lay at Whitley County Middle School, 549-7059.