​College Promise helps impoverished youth

First mentors and mentees complete program.

For many young people living in poverty, a college education seems completely out of reach. As these youngsters have watched their own parents struggle to make ends meet, they can only dream of a higher education and making a better live for themselves.

Mia DeBrill, one of four children raised by a single mother, saw herself in this situation when she was nearing the end of her 8th grade year in 2011. “My school counselor called me down to the office,” she said. “And no one gets called down unless they are in trouble. But she asked me if I wanted to fill out an application for a college scholarship and I wasn’t even thinking about college at the time.”

DeBrill said she had watched her mother struggling to prepare her older brother Nicholas for college and decided on her own that it cost too much and that she wasn’t going to put her mom through that process. “I thought I would just work for the rest of my life,” she said.

But the Montgomery County Ohio College Promise program changed all of that for DeBrill and she ended up being chosen to join the program at its onset four years ago. “I turned in all the paperwork and they called me in for a 45 minute interview,” she said. “They asked me some questions about my favorite subjects and colleges and told me I got in!”

The College Promise program provides an opportunity for up to 50 Montgomery County high school students per year whose lives are impacted by poverty to work with a caring adult mentor each week. The selected students, upon successful completion of high school and upon meeting the entrance requirements of partner colleges, including Sinclair, Wright State, Denison University, Kettering College, Miami University and the University of Dayton, are awarded scholarships that allow them to attend college at little to no cost to them or their families.

DeBrill met her mentor, Pam Smiga, four years ago, when she was a few weeks away from beginning her freshman year at Miamisburg high school. “When I first met Mrs. Smiga I thought she was going to be a tutor and help me with my homework,” DeBrill said. “But she was more like a ‘human diary.’ She would ask me about my friends and she would even take me out to eat sometimes. She was like a ‘life mentor’ and she gave me advice about things.”

It took the better part of her freshman year for DeBrill, who is a self-described introvert, to feel comfortable with her mentor. “She was easy to get to know,” DeBrill said. “But I made it difficult to get to know me! Over time I figured out all the program rules were reasonable and good for me if I wanted to go to college and make something of myself.”

Smiga applied to be a mentor after retiring from her job as a fifth grade school teacher. “I looked for ways I could be useful and contribute,” she said. “I thought this program was a perfect fit for me.”

And though at the onset of the program, Smiga said it seemed four years was a long commitment period, she said the time went by quickly. “It wasn’t much of a time commitment really,” she said. “I met with Mia on her lunch time at her school and I would go to see her in marching band. As her mentor I felt it was my purpose to be her friend and encourage her and to be there for her with any need, whether it be family, social or school. I think she knew it was in my heart to do whatever I could to help.”

DeBrill, who graduated from high school in May, has recently started classes at the University of Dayton where she is majoring in pre-med and thanks to College Promise has been awarded a full scholarship. “I had to apply like everyone else,” DeBrill said. “But I knew I wanted something in the medical field and I’ve kept my grades up.”

And Smiga and DeBrill have forged a lifelong bond the result of College Promise. “It benefits the mentor as much as the mentee to have this relationship,” Smiga said. “And it’s a relationship that will never go away. I will certainly see her often and that is the goal of College Promise: to be an adult in their lives that is always there for them.”

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Contact this contributing writer at banspach@ymail.com.