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Giving Back: Upstream competition helps develop mentors — and leaders

September 27, 2016

By Kate Jolley
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union

United Way of Northeast Florida Courtney Lynch’s proposal for mentoring high school students was a winner of the Upstream competition.

Upstream is a competition hosted by United Way that challenges college students to discover the complexity of issues in education, financial stability and health by developing an idea for social change. Lynch chose to focus on education with her winning entry, “Embedded Within.”

Lynch entered the competition at the last minute with the encouragement of her social worker adviser at the University of North Florida. She chose to develop a program to help strengthen the transition from education into the workforce, more specifically, mentoring students at Terry Parker High School for opportunities after high school.

“I narrowed it down to the transition from high school to college because I wanted to see immediate results,” Lynch said. “But it’s not just about helping kids get into college. I also wanted them to learn life skills because, many times, who you are in college is who you’ll be in life.”

Lynch’s was one of 10 applications selected, which were then matched with a Stein Fellowship coach to help implement the idea. Lynch’s coach, Melissa Adams, was able to introduce her to some friends in marketing to help with the second round of the contest, which is a lot like the popular television show “Shark Tank.”

During the second round, selected applicants must present their program to judges and tout its importance and potential social impact to win funding.

But it’s not all about glitz and glamour. Lynch knew her program so well that, even through the nerves, she was able to answer questions thoroughly and impress the judges.

“Melissa [Adams] let me be very independent,” Lynch said, “but if there was an issue or something that I didn’t know how to do, she was there for me.”

Of course, it didn’t hurt Lynch had already launched a pilot program at Terry Parker. She coordinated with the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher who taught a college prep course to both high-performing and low-performing students across all four grade levels.

She chose Terry Parker because it was the closest Title I School to UNF, from which she planned to pull her mentor pool. After creating a lesson plan similar to the AVID schedule, she recruited a few friends who were also interested in mentoring and started her test trial.

“So even before I submitted my proposal, I was able to see that what I wanted to do was attainable,” Lynch said.

After that, it was just a matter of making a positive impression on the panel made up of business and community leaders. And she did — not only tying for first place, but also winning the Viewer’s Choice Award.

“Courtney grew so much during the Upstream process,” said Sydney Solan, the individual and student engagement coordinator at United Way. “She blew everyone away with her presentation and went on to become the crowd favorite.”

With her $5,000 grant, Lynch is excited to watch her program flourish. She is currently managing seven mentors, who each talk to two students once a week, then submit journal reflections.

Lynch hopes to have at least 10 in the spring semester. She even plans to take the students on two college campus tours — at UNF and at a college outside Jacksonville — to make the potential college experience feel more realistic.

She will continue to submit research data to United Way to show progress as her program evolves. She also continues to learn more about herself — like her ability to handle pressure and balance responsibilities — as a direct result of the Upstream experience.

Lynch’s mom is her biggest motivator.

“I want my program to be for the kids who don’t have that parent pushing them to do better and move forward,” Lynch said.

She credits her mom with being a stand-in guidance counselor for her and many of her friends in high school, encouraging them to achieve their dreams.

Now she is paying it forward.

To learn more about Upstream and submit an innovative idea, visit unitedwaynefl.org/upstream.