SPARTANBURG, S.C. (courtesy smcsc.edu) — Climbing a mountain might not sound like the obvious way to start a program for students who are struggling, but when they get to the top, they realize just how much they can accomplish with hard work and the right people to help them along the way.
That’s how a group of 30 Spartanburg Methodist College students began their fall break – with a trek up nearby Crowders Mountain as part of The Summit: Academic Recovery and Leadership Institute sponsored by the College.
“It’s parallel to what they’re going through right now,” said SMC Director of Professional Development and Student Success Victor Durrah Jr., who is managing the program. “Climbing up a literal mountain together is a great way to help students visualize the big picture: Success is an uphill climb, but if you put in the effort and ask for help when you need it, you can make it at SMC. And the view from the top is worth it.”
The Summit, which mixes leadership training with study skills workshops, mentoring, individualized tutoring and a bevy of guest speakers, began last year as a program offered during fall break. Organizers saw the participating students’ grades improve, so this year fall and spring sessions are being offered. SMC Vice President for Professional Development and Design Courtney Shelton, who created the program, envisions The Summit continuing to expand, with the College eventually offering different tiers of programming for students who want to go through it again.
“These are students who have dug a little bit of a hole in the first half of the semester. We want to equip them and motivate them with the resources they need to reverse that trend and dig back out,” Shelton said. “But if you’re in a hole, to dig back out, it’s going to take some work.”
Some Summit students might only be struggling in one or two classes. Others may be having an issue with absences or dealing with personal situations. Initially, students were referred to the program by their professors; this year, it was open to all students without a referral.
Allison Guidici, a 19-year-old psychology major from Greer, said she opted to take part in The Summit to learn different study skills and to make her fall break productive. Guidici, a sophomore, said she’s making As in every class except one. As this year’s program wrapped up, she said she felt like it was important to her growth as a student, and that the different study skills she was exposed to were invaluable.
“What I realized is that I struggle with discipline,” Guidici said. “That was always a problem for me. I felt like if I wasn’t motivated to do something, it didn’t get done. But now I realize I need to have discipline. That’s been really nice, really helpful.”
Spartanburg Methodist College President Scott Cochran, who held three leadership sessions over the long weekend, was a hit. Cochran started each session at 9 a.m.
Kahleag Terry, an 18-year-old freshman studying business and photography, got to the first one about five minutes before it started. Cochran then proceeded to give $100 each to the three students who arrived about 20 minutes early.
“His model was ‘OUR’ – On-time, Upfront and Ready. That’s how SMC students should be,” Terry said. “That was one of the biggest things that got to me. It woke me up. I should’ve been up at 8 a.m. preparing myself for his presentation. After the first day, I started implementing that. I started getting to the sessions early, ready to go, because what President Cochran said really did hit me.”
In addition to the SMC staff leading The Summit, about 50 community leaders served as mentors, with students paired with someone different each day at lunchtime.
Alberto Hernandez, a 19-year-old freshman studying business, said he appreciated being able to spend time with working professionals and the opportunities that came from talking with them one-on-one.
One of Hernandez’s mentors was Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Allen Smith. Smith offered to let Hernandez shadow him on the job, and as part of that, Hernandez will get to meet the chief executive officer of Denny’s, a global diner chain that’s headquartered in downtown Spartanburg.
“All of this because I participated in The Summit,” said Hernandez, of Mexico. “People are looking for a good person, a prepared person who is ready to start. After this program, I feel like that person.”
Meghan Smith, director of college and career readiness with the Spartanburg Academic Movement, was another mentor this year. “I remember being in college, and how it’s possible to feel isolated from the world around you,” Smith said. “Bringing mentors from Spartanburg and the surrounding area to campus helps connect students with the community around them.”
The mentors appreciate the fact that the students chose to participate in The Summit, as opposed to being forced to be there, Durrah said.
“This generation gets a bad rap for being soft,” Shelton said. “And to hear some of the things our students are managing – the workload, academically, of course, but some of them have multiple jobs, some are helping support their families, some of them literally have no place to go besides here. And so whatever their situation or story is, it motives the mentors to hear that, and it takes them back to where they started.”
Support doesn’t stop for the students after they complete The Summit. Durrah will check in with the each of them throughout the year – asking them about their classes, seeing if they need to talk, or just sending an occasional text message of encouragement. Through the Summit Network, they will have access to various workshops and leadership programs during the rest of the school year.
The skills that students gained during The Summit and the connections they made will help them get to the top of their own mountains for years to come. Guidici said one of her mentors was a woman who works in behavioral health, which is the area she wants to specialize in. Terry, who has a small photography business, said one of his mentors is taking him to a workshop in Charlotte soon, and the two may try to build a brand together.
“Being here has opened up a lot of doors,” said Terry, who moved to Spartanburg from Wisconsin. “I could’ve just gone home for fall break. But by staying here, taking the initiative to build myself up, I know I made the right call.”