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FORT LEE — As a young immigrant in high school, Nicolas Sepulveda struggled with the “soft skills” of navigating a new culture and learning the complicated college admissions system.
His parents, who had immigrated from Chile and didn’t understand American culture, couldn’t guide him.
“It was very difficult,” Sepulveda said. “It would have been easier if there was someone there to help me.”
Fast-forward a couple of years, and Sepulveda, now a Cornell student, is a co-founder of a mentoring program called Illumna that helps students learn how to present themselves and how to maneuver in a school or office culture they may not have learned about in class.
“We don’t teach math and science,” Sepulveda said. “But we do teach how to do well on an interview and make a good first impression.”
The group started with four mentors — Sepulveda and his friends from Fort Lee High School — after his best friend, Sean Kwon, an immigrant from South Korea, contacted him with the idea.
Kwon, he said, “decided it would be best to be that person we wish was there for us when we were in high school.”
They, along with co-founders Ivy Xue and Kira Hassett, created what was then called the Polaris program to reach out to and mentor students from their former school.
Sepulveda said they’re focused on underprivileged and under-resourced students, as well as those with learning disabilities, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
After a first year focusing on Fort Lee, the group is expanding its program to include Northern Valley at Demarest, Palisades Park and Ridgefield Park. Sepulveda said they recruited friends from those schools, as they would know best how to serve the students there.
Most of the 18 mentors in Illumna are freshmen in their respective colleges, so the high school experience is fresh in their minds, he said.
Each student is assigned a mentor, and Sepulveda said he hopes the relationship lasts past the four-week program and for life.
“We want to create a network of relationships,” he said. “We want it to be lifelong.”
Over the course of the program, the mentors meet with students both individually and in groups and teach from a textbook that Sepulveda and his friends created. The students learn a lesson from the book, then do activities to discuss and apply.
For example, Sepulveda said, one chapter was about making a good impression. The students and mentors then discussed the most recent first impressions they’d made, then applied what they discussed to the interview process.
The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a national research organization that focuses on education outcomes, has reported that 90 percent of low-income, first-generation student do not get a college degree within six years. That’s far below the national average.
A large study by Stanford University in 2011 found that mentoring college students can make a significant difference in graduation rates.
Illumna, a non-profit organization, is funded mainly through grants, and has a GoFundMe page to help finance this year’s program, which will begin applications in May.
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Victor Hua, one of the mentors, who manages the group’s finances, said they don’t want financial issues to prevent any students who need mentorship from receiving it.
“We’re all very dedicated to our cause,” Sepulveda said. “All of our members are volunteers — the fact that they’ve decided to just help their community is very valuable.”
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