​Young Client College-Bound Thanks to Youth Mentor Program

A Bridge Refugee Services youth mentor gave Juan Perdomo Ramirez the confidence he needed to pursue higher education.

Juan and Sybil

“She gave me hope,” Juan said.
Juan, 23, is one of the refugees in Chattanooga enrolled in Bridge’s Youth Mentoring Program. The program pairs refugees between the ages of 15 and 24 who have been in the U.S. for less than five years with mentors who help them prepare for college, enter the workforce or reach other personal goals they set for themselves.
“One of the reasons I think this program is so fantastic is it’s able to be different things to different people based on what the client wants,” said Nate Hiltibran, who launched the program last year while serving with Bridge through AmeriCorps’ VISTA program. 
“One of the clients is focusing on budgeting. She’s the only working adult in her family right now, and she sits down with her mentor, who works at a bank and has knowledge when it comes to personal finance, and created a monthly budget and saving strategies. It’s been really successful for her so far.”
Several clients, like Juan, are working to improve their English language skills.  “A lot of them are studying to pass the HiSet test, which is a high school equivalency test,” Nate said. “Juan is applying to colleges. He’s a little bit further along in that process than most folks in the program.”
“My goal is just go to the university,” said Juan, who came to Chattanooga from Colombia in 2019. “I consider education the best thing to better my life.”
He wants to study marketing and merchandising or possibly computer programming.
Juan learned about the mentoring program from a fellow refugee who works with him at a poultry processing plant. After he was matched in March with Sybil Baker, an English professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, she encouraged him to pursue his college degree.
“He’s very smart and motivated and ambitious,” Sybil said.
It wasn’t until Sybil took him on a tour of the UTC campus that he began to see a path to higher education in America.
“When she gave me the tour and I saw all the places, all the rooms, that gave me hope that I can come here too,” he said.
Sybil connected him with resources to help him navigate the college application process.
Sybil, who taught English as a second language in South Korea for 12 years before relocating to Chattanooga, also wants to set him up for success once he starts taking college classes. While Juan’s conversational English skills are good, she’s helping him improve his English reading and writing.
The pair meet about once a week and he’s already seeing his English skills improving.
“When I meet with her, I practice what I’m learning,” Juan said. “She’s showing me new places in the city. We go to downtown, to restaurants. We’re trying to go to the Hunter Museum.”
The mentor-mentee relationship is a critical component to the program, Nate said.
“They all receive general relational, social support,” he said. “I’ve been hearing stories from mentees about how grateful they are to be part of the program and how much they appreciate the experience.”
The mentors have also given him positive feedback about the matches when he checks in with them once a month.
Sybil said she’s connecting Juan with community resources and putting him in touch with other members of Chattanooga’s Latin American community.
“Juan is just a very delightful person and I enjoy spending time with him on a basic level,” she said. “I helped him get a library card and showed him how to check out books. … We helped him get his first vaccination and I’ve just been getting him to meet more people and have more resources. … I’ll feel even better once we get him settled into higher education.”
Nate said 21 mentors have expressed interest in applying to participate in the program so far, but he anticipates that there will be a greater need for mentors—particularly for male mentors—as the program grows throughout this next year.
For more information about how to become a mentor, contact Nate at vistachatt@bridgerefugees.org.