For students who are underrepresented minorities, mentorship is critical to future success. Tamra Wright, who serves as SPEA’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, said mentoring opportunities allow women – especially African American women – to develop their own leadership skills and see that others who look like them can rise to the top.
Wright, who currently teaches a SPEA course on career development and diversity, invited her students to apply for Project Grow, a one-year mentoring program aimed at helping young women achieve academic success and develop leadership skills. SPEA undergraduate students Micah Benson and Scherrie Blackwell were accepted to the program and will receive 12 one-hour sessions with professional mentors throughout the country.
“You’ll often find that those who achieve success and end up in leadership positions have had a great mentor by their side,” Wright said. “Unfortunately, when we look at people in leadership, there are very few women and even fewer women of color. Mentorship opportunities are critical in moving the needle toward greater diversity.”
The program is part of the Pass the Torch for Women Foundation, an Indianapolis nonprofit founded in 2011 that creates a community of mentors for women in business and government.
Both Benson and Blackwell are looking forward to the opportunity to develop themselves as leaders and make a difference.
Micah Benson, BSCJ’18
Growing up, Benson knew she was fascinated by the criminal justice system when she preferred watching Judge Judy over cartoons on TV. After taking an introduction to law course in high school, the Fort Wayne native knew she wanted to pursue a career that would allow her to help others and make a difference.
“I feel like so much goes on in the criminal justice system that we fail to understand, and law is just what I connected to,” said Benson, who initially studied psychology when she arrived at IUPUI in 2015.
Benson enrolled in SPEA-J 101: The American Criminal Justice Systems with SPEA adjunct faculty member Judge David Shaheed, who worked on the bench in Marion County for 20 years. Inspired by Shaheed’s personal stories, Benson transferred to SPEA and decided to major in Criminal Justice to work toward her dream of being a judge.
“SPEA is a connected school, and the faculty and staff know who you are,” she said. “That kind of sense of knowing that I matter to somebody on campus – and that I’m not just a number – made my decision to transfer to SPEA easy.”
Since coming to IUPUI, Benson has taken on a number of roles to grow her leadership skills. She joined IUPUI OTEAM as an Orientation Leader, assisting students in their transition to college, and is currently a resident assistant at Ball Residence Hall. She also serves as an IUPUI Upward Bound mentor, and recently took on a 21st Century Scholar Peer Mentorship.
As part of the Peer Mentoring Program, Benson holds weekly sessions with 21st Century Scholars at IUPUI on topics ranging from study skills to knowing your identity.
Benson said she hopes she can use the Project Grow program to continue doing what she does best – mentoring others.
“I want to be an empty cup and to be filled up with all kinds of information that I can use in the future, because this is only the beginning,” she said. “I’m a sophomore, so even if I’ve don’t a lot already, there’s still room for improvement, still room to grow and become much more of a leader.”
Scherrie Blackwell, BSPA’17
After taking a year off from college, Blackwell, an Indianapolis native, thought she wanted to work in the pharmacy industry. That changed when she transferred from IU Bloomington to IUPUI and found SPEA.
Following several advising appointments and career counseling sessions, Blackwell decided pursuing a degree from SPEA better matched her values.
“Throughout my entire college career, I’ve been pushed toward SPEA,” she said. “There is so much I can gain here, and the SPEA Management degree is a degree you can really utilize in almost any sector.”
As her interest in politics grew, Blackwell met with state Sen. Greg Taylor, who represents her district in the Mapleton-Fall Creek Neighborhood. That meeting led to a legislative internship with the Indiana Senate Democrats during the 2016 session.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my professional career,” said Blackwell, who was assigned to state Sen. Jean D. Breaux, District 34.
In addition to providing her with insight into statewide politics, the internship drove her interests in nonprofits and public service. Blackwell said she ultimately hopes to work for a nonprofit, then use that experience to start her own nonprofit with a targeted demographic of young women or mothers to help them move out of poverty and into the professional sector.
She plans to use her knowledge of the political process to build a strong nonprofit while using the network she’s gained to generate support for nonprofit causes.
“Overall, I would like to use the connections I made with the legislative body as a catalyst in pushing my ideas and plans forward where they will receive a large amount of support and exposure,” she said.
With plans to graduate from SPEA in December of 2017, Blackwell has stayed connected to her network by taking on volunteer opportunities with John Gregg’s gubernatorial campaign, and Sen. Breaux’s office, and is and actively seeking other internship opportunities.
“What you learn in school, even in a college-level political science course, it’s very accurate, but it’s definitely much better to see the political process in person and to be there every single day throughout the process,” she said. “You just become more appreciative of what happens and how your role as a citizen locally can really push legislation and laws.”