Three hours before the glitz of the BEYA Stars and Stripes gala, hundreds of high school students meet with active and retired leaders in the military and federal Senior Executive Service (SES) at the Pre-Dinner Mentoring Program.
The program, which began in 2011 with about a hundred students and mentors, now brings together about 400 students from Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia and 200 mentors.
The mentors represent a broad spectrum, including astronauts, comptrollers, and representatives in the departments of agriculture and energy, CIA, FBI, and others.
According to Anthony Winns, a retired Navy vice admiral and founding member of the BEYA Stars and Stripes Committee, the students attend different sessions during the two-hour speed mentoring event, getting advice about career paths, overcoming challenges, courses to take in college, and more.
Walter Davis, who served as chairman of the BEYA Stars and Stripes Committee and is a retired deputy chief of naval operations, recalls coworkers and friends asking him and other high-ranking military personnel for advice and letters of recommendations for their children.
“Let’s take that to youth that don’t normally have that opportunity,” said Davis of the impetus for starting both the Pre-Dinner Mentoring Program and the Sustained Mentoring programs, now integral parts of the BEYA STEM Conference.
Both the pre-dinner and sustained mentoring programs seek to bolster young people’s interest in STEM careers.
Jesse McCurdy, a former director/coordinator of the Sustained Mentoring Program, said instead of waiting to see young people at BEYA events, the mentors—mostly retired military and civilians—go where the students are during the school year.
“We try to visit the schools once a month,” McCurdy said of the visits that start in November and continue until the end of the school year.
Young people, who teachers and school officials identify as having “a decent grade point average,” potential, and an interest in STEM meet with the mentors.
The mentors share the realities of working in various STEM careers, difficulties they encountered, salary information, courses to take in college, ways to finance college, and more, McCurdy said. The mentors also arrange for speakers at the schools and often participate in career or STEM day events.
One of the students that benefitted greatly from the Sustained Mentoring Program attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. He’s currently a sophomore at Yale University working on a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Four schools in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as two schools in Philadelphia, are also involved in the program.
The program currently has 10 mentors (two to three per school), but McCurdy would like to recruit more. He pointed out the mentors —many are retirees—are former admirals, generals, and members of the federal Senior Executive Service (SES).
“They make the time to do it,” said McCurdy, the first African-American SES member of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). He retired in 2013 after 37 years of government service.
“This mentoring program provides an opportunity to influence our youth across the country to continue to be successful in life,” said Winns.
Oftentimes a mentor and mentee will have a special connection that will extend beyond the event.
That happened for Winns, when he met a 10th grader one year. He took the student under his wing, and eventually, the student interned at Lockheed Martin, where Winns serves as chief executive, Middle East and Africa Region.
The student now is a high school senior with acceptance letters from five colleges and an interest in becoming an aeronautical engineer.
“He’s going to do great,” said Winns proudly.
Looking back to the program’s early days, when the first session had 75 students and 35 mentors, Winns is pleased with its progress and the work being done by a committee of dedicated volunteers.
“I think the program has evolved,” said Winns. “We have been making a difference.”