Having mentors with firsthand knowledge of the process can open students' eyes to new opportunities.

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When Celina Espinoza and Jazmyn Williams arrived on Western Washington University’s campus in September, the Skagit County 18-year-olds already knew more about their new school than the average freshmen.

Espinoza and Williams are among the first students to arrive at Western after having gone through the university’s Compass 2 Campus program, which sends WWU students to area school districts to work with students in grades 5-12 to encourage them to complete high school and consider higher education.

For students who come from families where completing high school and attending college might be new experiences, having mentors with firsthand knowledge of the process can open their eyes to new opportunities and help them avoid common pitfalls.

Espinoza credits the Compass 2 Campus mentors for helping her focus on her studies in order to go to college. Taking care of her younger brother, helping out at home when her mother worked late, and running her own cleaning business all got in the way of homework, she says. But the mentors worked with teachers to get her extra time on some assignments. They also told her to not give up.

“They’d tell me that even with family stuff going on, I need to be taking care of myself as well,” she says. “‘You’re growing into the person you’re going to be,’ they’d tell me. ‘You need to focus on yourself for a while.’ ”

Williams, a first-generation college student, interacted with mentors who were also first in their families to attend college, and who gave her lots of advice on how to navigate the application and financial aid process. And when mentors learned Williams was interested in becoming a music teacher, they got her in touch with a member of Western’s music faculty who helped her make a four-year academic plan. Williams already has declared a major in music education.

“I kind of felt like I almost had my foot in the door,” she says. “It made the transition all that much easier.”

College mentors’ academic and emotional support can make a world of difference, but financial support helps, too. Williams and Espinoza are among six recipients of scholarships for former Compass 2 Campus students, including one funded by Bruce and Cyndie Shepard.

Compass 2 Campus was founded at Western by Cyndie Shepard, following a successful mentoring program she helped start in Wisconsin. Shepard brought the program to Western when her husband, Bruce Shepard, became president. Launched in 2009 by the Washington State Legislature’s passage of HB 1986 with the goal of placing more mentors in Title I schools, Compass 2 Campus now sends Western student mentors into 13 area elementary schools, 10 middle schools and nine high schools in Skagit and Whatcom counties, serving 11 school districts. Partners include four community and technical colleges, and Central Washington University began its own version of the program in 2014.

On Oct. 17, about 1,000 fifth-graders from Skagit and Whatcom counties visited Western’s campus, to see firsthand what a university is all about. The annual tour of campus is just the beginning of a long-term relationship between the fifth-graders and Western students. As the fifth-graders progress through middle and high school, the college students mentor the children in their schools.

“We’re reaching out to students who may not think about graduating from high school and going on to college, encouraging them to have that vision,” says Anselmo Villanueva, executive director of Compass 2 Campus. “It’s great that students mentored in the program are now attending Western.”

Back in 2009, Espinoza and Williams were among the first fifth-grade group to visit campus as part of the tour day, both marveling at their first time on a college campus and wondering at the size of the buildings and the lack of recess.

Each year after that, WWU student mentors visited the girls’ schools – Espinoza graduated from Burlington Edison High School and Williams from Sedro-Woolley High School – helping in classrooms, leading homework review sessions in the library, and fielding daily questions about life as a college student.

“I was super-interested in college: ‘What are you doing there? What is it like?’ ” remembers Espinoza, who asked about everything from financial aid logistics to how to join student clubs. “They answered all my questions. If they didn’t know, they’d come back the next week and tell me the answer. They were super-helpful.”

Over the years Western students have provided about 200,000 hours of mentoring in area schools. Funding for the program primarily has come from the university, grants, and private sources.

Espinoza, now a participant in Western’s Future Woodring Scholars program for future teachers, said she plans to become a Compass 2 Campus mentor herself. But for now, she continues to rely on the advice the mentors gave her to succeed during her freshman year: Make a plan, and take it day by day, week by week.

“I’m just so in love with college right now,” Espinoza says.

Western Washington University offers a variety of degree options at various locations throughout the state, in addition to opportunities to impact communities. To learn more about available programs in your area, go to wwu.edu/locations.