As a mental health professional dedicated to uplifting traditionally underserved populations, much of William & Mary Associate Professor Janise Parker’s research and scholarship centers on the power of mentorship.

She has consistently engaged students in mentorship opportunities that promote mental health and diversity among the William & Mary population. Her work also extends beyond the university into the local community.

“As a school psychologist, I understand how high-quality mentoring can help youth grow socially and emotionally, and as a result, serve as a useful strategy for preventing or minimizing mental health challenges they may experience later in life,” she explains.

Parker’s latest project is an exciting partnership with the Youth Volunteer Corps of Hampton Roads (YVCHR), specifically designed for students participating in its “Service Through STEM” Clubs. Collaborating with YVCHR Director of School Partnerships Jeremy Wall and Newport News Public Schools STEM Instructional Specialist Kevin Nelhuebel, Parker developed an initiative to train and support 315 high school student mentors from eight local schools.

The mentors have volunteered to present and run engineering design challenges in fifth-grade classrooms during the school year. The collaboration empowers high school students to become mentors while inspiring younger students to explore the exciting world of STEM. Parker’s initiative gives the older students tools for a positive mentoring experience.

Parker sees this partnership as a natural extension of her ongoing work at William & Mary, where she has trained both graduate and undergraduate students in various mentorship programs, including the Success of Students Program, Project Empower, collaborative work with Griffin School Partnerships and Camp EAGER. The partnership with YVCHR evolved after Newport News leaders observed the contributions of William & Mary undergraduate mentors during Camp EAGER, a summer program led by School of Education faculty designed to encourage underrepresented groups to pursue STEM careers.

“To start even earlier at the high school level is amazing,” says Parker. She is seeing firsthand the tremendous benefits of mentorship on the students providing the support. After training the high school student mentors this fall, she was impressed with their dedication to helping the younger students. 

“I vividly remember hearing a high school mentor note that she hoped to help the fifth-grade students feel confident and self-assured, and another high school mentor expressed that she simply wanted to ‘make a difference,’” Parker elaborates. “I was also inspired to hear a mentor emphasize the importance of acceptance, as he strives to model what it means to not judge others by their identities when interacting with his mentees.”

Madeleine Dong (left) and Janise Parker (right) speak to students about mentoring. (Photo by JW Photography)

Wall echoes similar sentiments. Feedback from high school mentors underscores the positive impact on helping them feel more confident, foster meaningful connections and set appropriate boundaries. The idea of a Near Peer mentoring program, says Wall, was initially designed to improve attendance rates, but has accomplished so much more. Students at both levels are more excited about learning and more engaged in the classroom.

Wall commends Parker’s exceptional skills in relationship-building, emphasizing her positive mentorship role for the youth. As a faculty member at a prestigious university, students could find her intimidating or unapproachable, he says, but instead they readily connect with her.

“Dr. Parker’s approach is phenomenal. She’s very good at building relationships with students at all levels, and she’s very down to earth,” says Wall. “She has expanded our club members’ understanding of mentorship and inspired them to build intentional relationships with younger students as a way to make a positive impact.”

Parker enlisted the help of three graduate students in the school psychology program to facilitate these presentations: Madeleine Dong M.Ed. ’23, Ed.S. ’25; Corinne Polk-Trauman M.Ed. ’23, Ed.S. ’25; and Monique Williams M.Ed. ’22, Ed.S. ’24. Having current graduate students train high school mentors not only strengthens mentoring relationships but also adds an additional layer of Near Peer connections.

“Seeing the graduate students gave the high school students a way to envision themselves in the future as college students,” says Wall. “Some of them even expressed interest in becoming a teacher or a school psychologist, and they stayed to ask the graduate students questions about the field of education.”

Monique Williams (second from left) and Janise Parker (back row, third from left) celebrate after class with YVCHR student mentors. (Photo by JW Photography)

The experience also provided meaningful professional development for the graduate students.

“Presenting to mentors added insight for me as I step further into the shoes of a school psychologist,” says Polk-Trauman. “The experience highlighted how high school-level mentorships are imperative for many school-based resources.”

“It was heartening to see their desire to contribute, show empathy, and invest their time in learning how to guide others,” added Dong. “This experience strengthened my belief in the power of mentorship programs.”

By emphasizing the importance of quality mentoring in youth development, Parker envisions creating a more inclusive and resilient community, where individuals are equipped to face life’s challenges. Through the YVCHR partnership and other projects, Parker plans to continue promoting mental health awareness and creating meaningful collaborations that positively impact both the university and the broader community.