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UWSP mentoring program set up BSU president for success

As senior Chris Blackmon reflects on his time at UW-Stevens Point, several people influenced who he's become. The two who had the biggest impact are his mother and his grandmother.

His mom signed him up for the Learning Enrichment and Achievement Program (LEAP). Even though he didn't initially want to participate, this program of UW-Stevens Point's Tutoring-Learning Center has made all the difference in his college experience, said Blackmon, Milwaukee.

The program matches new students who are racially diverse or the first in their family to attend college with mentors who have at least one year of classes completed. They came to UW-Stevens Point a week before most students.

Blackmon was nervous when he arrived, but so were the rest of the new students. They got to know each other during a weekend at Treehaven field station in Tomahawk, then learned about various campus resources to help them succeed academically and socially. Many of those students remain friends.

Each student was paired with a faculty or staff member. His host was an Admissions counselor who is also African American and helped him navigate and adapt to the Stevens Point campus community.

"LEAP was an eye-opening experience. If I did not join or stay connected, I'm not sure what my college life would have been without it. It opened me up to networking, different resources on campus, different ways to get involved," said Blackmon, a health science major. "I definitely owe a lot of my success to LEAP. It helped build me into the person I am today, and I'm grateful my mom made me go."

The program was so helpful to Blackmon his first year that he applied to be a mentor in his sophomore and junior years. "I enjoyed being a mentor and feel it helped me grow as a person. It helped me network and build interpersonal skills," he said.

His mentor encouraged him to get involved in campus activities right away, and Blackmon joined the Black Student Union. "Now I'm the BSU president. Freshman year, I would've never thought I'd be an officer," he said.

Blackmon sought academic resources, too. He took biology tutoring to secure a passing grade. He also took advantage of the office hours of faculty teaching his classes. "All of my professors have been helpful. I felt supported and never had a bad experience."

He was a positive, engaging presence in Jennifer Bray's physiology class. "Chris demonstrated himself to be one of the most dedicated and intelligent students that I have taught. Chris was present every day in lecture, always prepared, and appeared to always be very interested and engaged in the material. He directly participated in lecture and lab by asking insightful and challenging questions," she said.

Trisha Lamers is director of the LEAP program and Tutor-Learning Center and is proud of Blackmon's growth. "Chris is a quiet, but powerful force. He is thoughtful and intentional," she said. "He is consistently calm, collected and always moving forward."

He is a teaching assistant to Lamers for the new iteration of the class, LEAD+. "Chris seeks opportunities to stay in stretch zone," she said. 

Blackmon and Lamers conducted research earlier this year, looking at how peer mentoring affects undergraduate racial minorities' satisfaction at a primarily white institution. They found that LEAP-mentored African Americans more strongly agreed that they felt socially engaged at UW-Stevens Point. Overall, mentored students reported more institutional satisfaction than UW-Stevens Point students who were not mentored.

"LEAP has done a nice job of retaining minority students with the resources it has," Blackmon said, recommending more programs to support BIPOC students and more faculty and staff who are people of color. "UW-Stevens Point is working to foster a more inclusive environment," he added.

He encourages students to be receptive to opportunities, listen to advice and use resources available. "Seize every opportunity because you never know where it will take you."

When he graduates next May, Blackmon plans to pursue a career path inspired by the other key figure in his life, his grandmother, a nurse at Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Hospital, Milwaukee.

"Nanny has been a very instrumental figure in my life," he said. She brought him to Ebenezer Church, where she was parish nurse. "I saw how compassionate, caring and selfless she was and how she influenced those around her. The impact she has had on her community is inspirational and motivates me to do the same. Because of her I want to be able to give back to my community and help empower those who are underrepresented, and I want to do that in the health care setting."

His preparation and desire to learn all he could sets Blackmon apart, said Bray, associate professor of biology. "He is one of the most motivated and intellectually curious students that I have ever taught. This is something that truly separates him from other top-performing students and will make him highly successful in his career in the medical field."

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