Mentoring program helps students leap forward

by Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff • March 30, 2016

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Students in the eLEEP program.
Courtesy of Angela Cooke-Jackson
Students in the eLEEP program.
Courtesy of Angela Cooke-Jackson

Angela Cooke-Jackson, an assistant communication studies professor, spent most of her life straddling her at-risk community roots and her more recent suburban lifestyle in Ohio and around the country—a history which moved her to create a peer-to-peer mentoring program to challenge privilege in Boston.

The venture is called Emerson Literacy Education and Empowerment Project (eLEEP), and it was founded by Cooke-Jackson and Paul Mihailidis, an associate marketing communication professor, six years ago. The six-week program aims to increase knowledge on sexual, physical, and mental health for teens through media and peer education. This summer, Cooke-Jackson, 54, said they will have 26 students involved.

“It was really kind of a desire to do something innovative at Emerson,” she said. “To weld together both of our minds and our love for different types of research, and to collectively bring together the Emerson student population and the Boston community.”

The project pairs teens from neighborhoods like Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Roslindale with Emerson students and trains them in filmmaking. They use the college’s equipment to create short films discussing topics like domestic abuse and drug use, Cooke-Jackson said. After, the mentored youth switch roles and are assigned local middle school students as mentees. She said she uses the results she’s gathered from eLEEP as part of her research on behavioral changes in youth.

“Much of it came out of the research idea that for young people to really embody and listen to information, especially when it’s related to health behavior, often times, it’s much easier for them when it’s coming from somebody that they respect,” Cooke-Jackson said.

Emerson students interested in the mentoring program apply online, and then undergo a background check, interviews, and training. The position pays around $12 to $15 an hour.

Taylor McMahon, a senior communication sciences and disorders student and eLEEP assistant coordinator, said she came across the program through her minor in health communication. She said the community is a hodgepodge of backgrounds and personalities, Mihailidis and Cooke-Jackson included, all contributing to the greater goal.

“The two of them together have an awesome dynamic,” McMahon said. “Paul is systematic, objective, and rational in his thought. I think Angela compliments that really well in the way that she takes the rational and the analytical side of Paul and brings in that driving question of ‘So what?’”

Mihailidis, 38, and Cooke-Jackson met at a faculty seminar while working at the college. Mihailidis said they recognized their mutual interest in behavioral studies, but from different approaches, his being in media literacy.

“[eLEEP] came from our shared passions we have around these topics,” Mihailidis said. “In this digital age of media abundance, the more youth can feel empowered to be the creators of messages, the more they learn about how messaging impacts society on a number of levels.”

Mihailidis, the associate faculty director of Emerson’s Engagement Lab, said he’s excited to introduce video game design to this summer’s group of youth. McMahon’s leading the charge in working with the staff to create one to two gaming prototypes while incorporating their health education topics. The program is introducing this technology to the students in hopes of furthering their creation, passions, and media knowledge, he said.

“[Game design] is another new direction that we’re taking at eLEEP,” Mihailidis said. “We’re hoping that adds more value to the program. Instead of just focusing on production, we’re now adding in game design. Even adults get a kick out of [video simulations].”

About two years ago, Cooke-Jackson said, she became the sole director because of Mihailidis’ commitment to other programs, but he still holds an influential role as a co-founder. 

Cooke-Jackson said she was inspired after noticing no significant relationship between many of Boston’s college campuses and the area locals. She said a lot of the youth have never stepped foot inside schools like Emerson and hopes more programs like eLEEP will form to help combat this disconnect.

“We walk through their communities and see these people and maybe sometimes give a nod to them,” Cooke-Jackson said. “But most of the time, it’s us coming into their space and making it ours as if we were here first. Emerson students [involved] get to understand the cultures that have been around here for a long, long period of time.”

Mihailidis said the joint community outreach and media focuses are in line with ideals he sees on campus and hopes to instill as a professor.

“[eLEEP mentors] can both learn the skills of how to engage with youth in media production while talking about issues like health,” Mihailidis said. “They really learn how they can engage in constructive dialogue in storytelling around them. For Emerson as a community, this is really at the heart of the type of experiences we want our students to have.”