Like many of her classmates at Mountain View High School, Shanelle Co is under the gun. Finals are next week, college deadlines are looming, and it seems like there's never been so much to do in such little time.
Co tries to keep her mind focused on one goal: getting into a good university. It would be a proud achievement for her entire family for her to be the first to go on to higher education.
But to be this kind of pioneer is daunting. Her parents, both immigrants from the Philippines, are unfamiliar with the U.S. college system, and her school counselors have plenty of other students in need of guidance.
The good news is Co has some outside help on her mission. For the last couple of years, Co has been taken under the wing of Sandy Burgan, a 60-year-old retiree who is familiar with the trials and tribulations of high school life. On a weekly basis, the two each take a couple of hours out of their busy days to meet up, usually at a coffee shop. Sometimes they talk about academics; at other times they discuss life, stress, friends, family or whatever else is on their minds.
"We got comfortable together really fast," Co said. "I'm glad that I can talk to someone else about these things. Now I really look forward to our meetings."
Burgan nodded along as her protégé spoke.
"I appreciated her back story, and I thought I could help her get into college," Burgan said. "She's very left-brained and good at math, but she also has a very creative side."
The pair met about two years ago through Mentor Tutor Connection, a Los Altos-based nonprofit that links students with seasoned professionals as a way to provide guidance in their education and other aspects of their life. Originally launched in 1996, Mentor Tutor Connection puts a priority on helping students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those who would be the first in their families to graduate high school or go to college.
At younger grade levels, this mentoring is usually focused on straightforward academic tutoring, helping students with fundamental subjects such as math and reading. For high school students, this guidance verges into other subjects, such as students' social life, self-esteem and stress management. Mentors try to present themselves not just as role models, but also as approachable adults with whom students can freely talk about anything on their minds.
"This is an opportunity for students to have a relationship with an adult who isn't a parent or school staff member," Burgan said.
This year, Mentor Tutor Connection is one of seven local nonprofits that benefit from donations to the Voice Holiday Fund. With the support of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, 100% of donations go directly to these nonprofits.
In total, Mentor Tutor Connection has about 90 volunteers providing guidance at schools in the Mountain View and Los Altos area. More mentors are always needed, and anyone interested in volunteering their time is urged by Mentor Tutor Connection to apply.
Burgan joined Mentor Tutor Connection a few years ago after seeing an ad in the Voice. She had recently retired from a sales position at a semiconductor firm, and her own daughter was all grown up, so she decided to go for it.
On the other side, Co wanted someone who could speak from experience about navigating the college entry gauntlet. She applied to join Mentor Tutor Connection as a sophomore, after learning that more than 30 of her classmates were also in the program.
At their first meeting, Co remembers being extremely shy, not sure of what to expect. Burgan tried to put her at ease, asking her what she wanted to get out of the relationship. From there, the conversation got much easier.
For their outings, the pair often meet at a coffee shop and hang out, but they've done plenty of other activities, Burgan said. Together, they've tried out their golf swings at a driving range, taken hikes at the nearby open space preserve and visited local museums. Burgan has become both a mentor and a friend, Co said.
Co is now in the home stretch of her plan to get into college. She has already applied to nine universities, including two University of California campuses and Santa Clara University. Now she is waiting to hear back from all of them, hoping to major in engineering.
No matter what, Burgan said she is immensely proud of her.
"My biggest thing is Shanelle is so smart. I just want her to embrace that."