“I didn’t know going to college was possible for me”: The Galax Mentoring Project

By Elizabeth Stringer-Nunley

March 11, 2023

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Stringer-Nunley, Becca Halm, and Deirdre Hand

The Center for Rural Education is so excited to be partnering with the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies on an initiative we call the Galax Mentoring Project. The Galax City school district in rural southwest Virginia has one of the highest percentages of multilingual learners in Virginia. Our two centers have partnered with the district to provide tutoring and mentoring to multilingual high school students in Galax, with most of our tutors/mentors being students at Virginia Tech who are multilingual themselves (primarily Spanish speakers). In this post, Galax teacher and champion of the project, Elizabeth Stringer-Nunley, shares some highlights from the first semester of the project. 

The First Visit: Galax to Virginia Tech

On Friday, October 13, 2023, the Galax Mentoring Project kicked off on a gorgeous fall day on the campus of VT. As the Galax bus circled the drill field toward Burruss Hall, the students were buzzing with excitement about being on campus. When we arrived, the VT mentors were there with posters and shouts of welcome to their campus. One of the students said, “Look!  They look like us!”  The day would only get better from there.

VT mentors eagerly wait to greet Galax students.

“Look! They look like us!”

The group proceeded to the drillfield where we spent some time getting to know one another. The connections made with the mentors were immediate and deep. Conversations varied from favorite foods to personal immigration stories. You could feel the students’ excitement at being able to connect with someone who looked like them, spoke their same language, and had similar experiences as they did. While we were on the drillfield, a VT cadet ran through with the game ball from the Homecoming game that would be played the next day. All of the students got to touch the game ball for good luck! (It paid off, because VT won the Homecoming game the next day!)

Galax students were impressed by the quiet atmosphere in the Torgerson Bridge study area.

The day continued with a short walk through various parts of campus, eventually reaching El Centro in Squires Student Center, a center that serves the Latinx community on campus. There were flags of Spanish-speaking nations lining the walls, and the Galax students were excited to point out their own countries’ flags. 

Galax students opened envelopes containing the name of their mentor along with some fun facts (and cool VT swag!). There were high fives, fist bumps, hugs, and shouts of “yes!” heard all around the room. The Galax students wore huge smiles all day. Students who never speak at school could not stop talking during this trip. Students seen as loners at school were telling jokes and stories to groups of mentors while at VT. Amazing connections and conversations were going on all day. 

After a delicious lunch in D2, we had to say goodbye. On our way back to Galax, the students all wanted to see each other’s mentor envelopes and talked animatedly about who they were paired with. Several students asked if we could come back every day. A few even said that they did not even realize that there were people in our area like them. One Indigenous student from Guatemala had tears in his eyes when he thanked me for connecting him with a VT student from Guatemala. He said he had missed his home so badly and being able to connect with someone who knew the same places and foods and culture as him was really special. 

As an exit ticket activity, I asked the students to tell me their favorite part of the day. Some of the answers were to be expected, such as “the food” or “getting out of school,” but there were others that really made this endeavor worthwhile, such as “meeting an undocumented student like me who was able to go to college” or “hearing how Cristian works construction during the summers to pay for his college—maybe I could do that too” and “Axel has tattoos like me and I’m going to be like him one day” and “I didn’t realize that there were students from Honduras in college.”  

“I didn’t realize that there were students from Honduras in college.” 

The Second Visit: Virginia Tech to Galax

November 10 was a rainy, gloomy day outside, but was bright and happy inside of the Galax High School library where the second in-person gathering of the Galax Mentoring Project took place. The Galax students were eager for their mentors to arrive and asked all morning what time they would get here. 

Once the mentors arrived, everyone gathered in the library to play a speed-dating icebreaker game. They also completed a life inventory that was very eye-opening for many. Everyone then enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by the GHS cafeteria staff. They served chicken tinga with tostadas, rice, beans, pozole, flan, chocoflan, Mexican fruit cups, horchata and even more! (We are blessed to have a couple of Latina ladies cooking in our cafeteria!)

After lunch, the VT mentors held a panel discussion about college life, and the afternoon passed very quickly. As the mentors were leaving, there were plenty of hugs, handshakes, and “see you on Zoom!” 

The Third Visit: Galax to Virginia Tech

The last in-person meeting of the semester took place on the VT campus on December 1, with activities starting at the Language and Culture Institute. With their VT mentors, Galax students had the privilege of touring the Helmet Lab at VT to learn about how helmets are created, tested, and improved to help reduce the risk of concussion. 

Students were able to try on several different styles of helmets, including those worn by the VT football team. They are crazy heavy! 
They also got to watch helmets being tested by machines that produce impacts to measure the risk of concussions. 

The students also had the opportunity to create a vision board for the upcoming year. They had discussions about what their successes had been for 2023 and what they hoped to achieve in 2024. I was happy to hear that many of the students included “graduate” as one of their goals! This activity opened up some good conversations not only between the mentors and mentees, but also among the group of Galax students. On the bus ride home, the students were constantly asking to see each other’s boards and see what their goals were.

 Students enjoyed cutting words and pictures out of magazines to create their vision boards for 2024. 
Lunch was pizza from Benny’s. The slices were bigger than their heads! 
No one could finish more than one slice! 

At the end of the day, the VT mentors surprised the Galax students with personalized baskets full of goodies! Students were given snacks and drinks and candy that they had mentioned they enjoyed during the Zoom meetings. I think half of the snacks were eaten on the bus before we even made it back to Galax! 

The Galax students loved their gifts!

Continuing the Relationships Online

Between the in-person meetings, students have been meeting weekly with their mentors over Zoom. The mentors have done an amazing job of having conversation starters and other activities ready to use, but they also are prepared to allow the conversations to flow in ways that benefit the students. They discuss their week, ask questions about each others’ lives, and help with assignments. As the mentoring relationship continues, we expect even deeper conversations about grades, credit accrual for graduation, passing important high-stakes assessments, and life plans after high school. 

Final Thoughts

Even though the mentoring program is still young, great strides have been made already. My goal for this program is to encourage our multilingual students to graduate high school. But, I feel like the effects will last far beyond high school graduation. While we are still struggling with getting students to pass classes, to be motivated to pass an SOL test, or to just care about what they will do in the future, we are seeing students open up in ways they haven’t before. We are seeing smiles on faces that we’ve rarely seen. We’re hearing connections being formed and experiences shared that would have never been shared with school faculty. We are hearing students say, “I didn’t know going to college was possible for me.” We are seeing small changes in attitudes. The changes won’t happen overnight, but they are happening. We are making a difference.

Elizabeth Stringer-Nunley is an ESL specialist at Galax High School in Galax, Virginia.

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