Volunteers from the Black Student Union are taking some time to volunteer with local incarcerated youths with the hopes of turning their lives around.
BSU is approaching its 10th year of running U-Turn, a mentoring program for imprisoned teenagers that focuses on fostering responsibility, unity and nurturing.
Every Sunday, BSU takes about 30 student counselors to a minimum security detainment facility in Finger Lakes and a maximum security one, MacCormick Secure Center, in Tompkins County to talk to incarcerated teenage males.
Ndeye Niang, the political correspondent for BSU, runs the program and said that BSU tries to bring conversation rather than traditional mentoring.
“The first thing they say to us when we come in is that they don’t want a lecture,” Niang said. “We want to show them, just by being there, that if you come from a certain area, you don’t have to have a certain path.”
Instead of trying to dissuade the teens from making poor life choices, BSU focuses on connecting with the participants. For example, when one young man said he worried about finding a college to play basketball for after he left the facility, Niang brought him a list of possible community colleges.
“It’s helped me grow as a person, because just being there and knowing that I’m helping someone makes me feel really good,” Niang said.
U-Turn started when a social worker from MacCormick contacted the BSU in search of mentors in 2004. In the past, BSU members have also visited Lansing Residential Center, an all-women’s facility, but it has since been closed.
At the facility, the student counselors are split into three units in order to have more intimate conversation circles with the troubled teens. At the facility in Finger Lakes, each unit talks to about 10 teens, and at MacCormick the number of teens ranges from six to ten.
Khasim Lockhart, a senior majoring in English, participates in the program by advising current student mentors. Lockhart also said that the program is about connecting with the teens.
“It wasn’t always like, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about the perception of the black man in our culture,’” Lockhart said. “It was literally just hanging out and having fun.”
Luis Gonzalez, a junior majoring in history, recalled a juvenile’s reaction to a mentor graduating.
“At that point, one of the guys kept asking her if she was serious and after asking her about four times, he took a step back and had a dumbfounded, yet disappointed look on his face,” Gonzalez wrote in an email.
William Martin, chair professor of BU’s sociology department, serves as the faculty advisor for U-Turn. He helps coordinate with the facilities and assists the students running the program.
“They give up their time to do this,” Martin said. “And some of them go out on Saturday. It really is a lot of work.”
The mentors are expected to go to both facilities every Sunday.
“If students don’t go, they’ll get calls from the inmates asking where they were,” Martin said. “The BU students have a lasting impact on the incarcerated, for sure.”
U-Turn is funded entirely through the BSU, through the BSU pageant in the spring and supplemented from the BSU budget, to pay for bus costs.
“Spending time with these kids humbled me,” Lockhart said. “It was the highlight of my college career.”