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Lifelong Learning is a two-way street for ASPIRE mentors

Gary Anderson, left, Jen Marsden, center, and Adrienne Simmons share stories and updates about the AHS students in the Aspire Program.

As adults of a certain age, we’ve all read the articles on how to live longer, more fulfilling lives. In addition to the obvious ones relating to health, nearly all researchers agree that we should stay active, seek knowledge, maintain social connections and find ways to make a difference in the lives of other people.

For Adrienne Simmons and Gary Anderson, the ASPIRE Mentor Program at Ashland High School meets all these needs.

Simmons retired from a career in health care administration and moved to Ashland seven years ago, and Anderson retired from a career as a magazine editor, and moved here three years ago. Here both worked to find new activities and build new social connections, becoming involved in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University.

But there was still something missing. No longer employed, they found they missed contact with younger generations. New friends here introduced them to the ASPIRE Mentoring Program at Ashland High School, under the direction of Jen Marsden, the AHS College & Career Specialist. ASPIRE is an Oregon-wide program that matches volunteers with high school juniors and seniors to mentor the students in developing a plan for education and training beyond high school that will help them achieve their career and life goals.

For Simmons and Anderson, ASPIRE ticked all the boxes. From the students they were paired with, they found themselves learning about what it’s like to be on the beginning edge of career and life. They also made social connections they would not otherwise have made, with students and faculty and with other mentors. Above all, both found satisfaction in believing they might be making a positive difference in a young person’s life.

Based on her experiences in ASPIRE, Simmons notes, “While Ashland has a well- funded school district, a third of the Ashland High students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program [the standard criterion for various forms of financial assistance].”

Responding to Simmons’ request, Marsden matched her with students who could benefit from the assistance of an adult to help guide them not only with education choices, but also in taking advantage of available assistance programs from federal funding, state programs, colleges, local scholarships and the ASPIRE Fast Forward Fund.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” says Simmons, noting that service clubs in Ashland, including Rotary, the Elks, AAUW, PEO ... have helped make college and vocational schools possible for many AHS students. In her seven years in ASPIRE, Simmons has mentored students who are recent immigrants to the U.S., the first in their family to go to college, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and homeless students who are also served by the Maslow Project.

One of her recent mentees was selected as a Ford Scholar, qualifying the student for one of the prestigious awards that cover tuition and expenses of Oregon and Northern California students who otherwise would struggle to pay the increasing costs of a college degree.

Based in part on his own experiences, Anderson has elected to work with students who may not be challenged by the standard high school curriculum. His goal is to encourage them to achieve their potential by defining educational programs that uniquely suit their personal goals and abilities. Though he has worked with only a few students in the three years he’s been involved with the program, he is proud of the educational opportunities and recognition they have earned for themselves.

For both Simmons and Anderson, their involvement starts by understanding their students’ own potential, including personal circumstances as well as career interests and life goals. Both agree that an ASPIRE mentor — as neither a teacher nor a parent — fills a particular role for the students, giving them outside affirmation in their decisions and accomplishments. Simmons mentions that she continues to keep in touch with some of her students after high school graduation, and Anderson is following her example with his mentees.

“Being an ASPIRE mentor is one of the most meaningful and rewarding volunteering I’ve done,” Simmons says. “I find it’s definitely a two-way street. While I can help students with the college applications and scholarship process, they are also mentors to me concerning the joys and challenges of their generation.”

Anderson agrees. “With every conversation with a student, I learn as much about contemporary life as I try to convey from my own experience.”

For more information about the Oregon ASPIRE Program, visit aspireoregon.org/home. To learn more about becoming an ASPIRE mentor at Ashland High School, email jennifer.marsden@ashland.k12.or.us.

Adrienne Simmons spent her career with Providence in Oregon working in health care administration. In addition to being an ASPIRE mentor, she is a member of AAUW and OLLI. Living in Mountain Meadows, Gary Anderson is an OLLI instructor, former consultant with Stanford Research Institute, and former editor-in-chief for several automotive magazines.