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Call Me MISTER’s first group of graduates hope to inspire, mentor

When Reon Gillespie, Alan Aburto and Ja’Waun Williams were handed the blue-and-red striped neckties that formally symbolized their entry into the University of Illinois Chicago’s Call Me MISTER initiative years ago, they knew they were on their way to achieving their dreams of attending college.

As the three students — who make up the inaugural group of MISTERs — graduate from the UIC College of Education May 6, they will be one step closer to becoming Chicago-area teachers and mentors to students who look like them.

The MISTER name stands for “Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models” and is part of an initiative that began at Clemson University in 2000 to address the scarcity of male teachers of color in the nation’s elementary classrooms. UIC’s partner program began in 2018 and was the network’s first large urban research institution.

“I remembered feeling like an NBA player on draft-pick night whose name had just been called,” Gillespie recalled. “Honestly, I was just happy to be receiving a full-ride academic scholarship. Since then, I’ve learned to appreciate the position I’m in now because I am very blessed.”

Aburto remembered when he received his tie from Alfred Tatum, the former dean of UIC’s College of Education who brought the program to UIC. It was as though Aburto woke up from a dream.

“Everything felt very real when I received that tie from Dean Tatum. I knew then that I was going to be the first person in my family to ever attend college,” Aburto said. “[At commencement], all the hard work and sacrifices that have been made by me and by my family are going to pay off. It will become very real once again.”

Williams said that when he joined Call Me MISTER as a sophomore and received his tie, he knew it meant he had the opportunity to reach the goals he had set for himself.

“Being accepted into the cohort meant having access to a network of individuals who would provide guidance and insight as to the life of being an educator,” Williams said. “It also meant being given a leg up on my resume compared to that of my peers and being given a platform for my passion of mentoring and teaching.”

UIC Call Me MISTER currently has 12 MISTERs in its ranks, and the aim is to recruit between five and seven new members for the fall semester, said Decoteau Irby, who leads the initiative and is an associate professor of educational policy studies. Depending on funding, the goal would be to have as many as 25 MISTERs in the College of Education at any given time and graduate between five and seven MISTERs each year, Irby said.

The way the initiative was designed, students would be living together on campus to assist one another and serve as peer mentors for school, social and personal issues. But because of the pandemic, many students returned to their family homes while classes went remote.

Currently, some of the MISTERs live in residence halls on campus, some are living off-campus and others have roomed together.

Irby said he and Jeniece Fleming, hired as the Call Me MISTER coordinator, have worked to reach students during the pandemic, some of whom chose to leave because of wellness and family issues.

“We’ve been able to remain in touch with them for the semester they were out, and they’ve been able to come back and do well,” Irby said.

The students receive one-on-one coaching from faculty advisers and have regular MISTER meetings where they share issues they are confronting. Sometimes these issues are related to classes, social issues or the future. Like many other students, much of the guidance they need, Irby said, is knowing how to succeed in their classes and learning how to advocate for themselves when they face situations such as having a missing assignment or needing to improve a grade.

“We’re able to identify issues because we have an ongoing relationship with them,” Irby said. “And we’re able to find out when there are problems early enough to actually be able to troubleshoot and resolve them.”

When Gillespie joined UIC, he first started in the business program and then decided to get into the MISTERs initiative. He is an urban education major focusing on elementary education and is pursuing a middle grades endorsement in English and language arts. When he turned to Call Me MISTER, the advisers and faculty helped him realize that he wanted to be a teacher.

“I had mentors I could go to at any time and amazing staff who made it clear what I needed to do to graduate while being the best version of myself,” Gillespie said. “The program became a conduit to my success because my purpose was being discovered.”

As the first in his family to attend college, Aburto looked to the program for support, as a way to ask questions and bring up concerns. Not only did he walk away with answers, but as he transitions from the program and into the teaching profession, he is leaving UIC with a deepened sense of purpose.

“It allowed me to see the impact I could have as a male teacher of color. It allowed me to think about more than just being a teacher, but really being a mentor,” Aburto said. “I always wanted to be a teacher, so it’s been great to receive the support as a first-generation student. Call Me MISTER helped me reach my goal.”

At graduation, Aburto, whose concentration is in math, will be honored with the UIC College of Education Dean’s Award of Merit. Each year the Award of Merit is given to one bachelor’s, one master’s and one doctoral graduate in the college.

Williams said that when he joined the initiative, he was able to serve as a peer mentor to help the other MISTERs get acclimated to the campus and the pace of the university. He said he values the brotherhood instilled by the program.

“It’s really helpful to have that cohort of individuals who are taking the same classes, interacting with the same teachers, and standing out; you lift each other up or give each other support,” Williams said.

Even as the students were off campus working in Chicago-area grade schools over the past year during their required student teaching rotations, they stayed connected with each other and reached out to their network to discuss their experiences.

As they worked in their schools, they realized just how integral their roles as mentors have been to their students, especially to the young males of color. The students in the schools often reach out to them for guidance, support in class, as well as for tips about things going on in their lives. When the three men were growing up, they did not have male teachers of color to help them navigate life both in and out of the classroom.

“It has really pushed me to think of myself more than someone who is there just to teach the content but really to think about how you can make a difference in student’s lives…what little seeds I can plant that can really change students, especially those that need it the most,” Aburto said.

All three said they would highly recommend the initiative, especially for future male teachers who are committed to the teaching profession and mentorship. They said there is a need for others like them in the female-dominated teaching profession and believe that having more men will positively impact education.

“It’s been a short time, but I love all the kids. I’ve looked many of them in their eyes and seen how they light up when they have a Black man speak positivity and motivation to them,” Gillespie said. “Those are the students I want to grow with.”

The program has tapped into a need in the teaching profession and has worked to connect them with principals and school officials to discuss job opportunities. Their futures look promising — they have been fielding offers from principals inviting them to apply for full-time teaching jobs before they’ve even graduated.

“I’ve been receiving job offers in education since my sophomore year from all over the country,” said Williams, whose concentration is in math. “I think it’s just shed a much-needed light on what we’re missing in our education system, and that’s role models.”

Current Dean of the College of Education Kathryn Chval reflected, “These are impressive men, teachers and role models. I wish every person and foundation that has invested in the UIC Call Me MISTER Initiative could attend our commencement ceremony to hear the cheers and experience the joy as they walk across the stage and accept their diplomas. Furthermore, I wish they could witness the impact the MISTERs will have as they pay it forward every day in their future classrooms.”

The College of Education graduation ceremony will be held Friday, May 6, at 9 a.m. at the Credit Union One Arena, 525 S. Racine Ave. Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton will give the commencement speech.

More information about the UIC Call Me MISTER program is available online.

This story was originally posted on UIC Today.