Roses in Concrete: Empowering tomorrow’s leaders through mentorship

Tracy Das and Jolecia SaundersonPhoto/Mike Lovett

Waltham High School student Tracy Das with her mentor, Jolecia Saunderson '24

After students of color on campus expressed their desire for diverse mentors on campus, members of the Brandeis community joined forces with Waltham community partners to make a change for all ages.

Roses in Concrete, a program enabling Brandeis students of color to mentor Waltham High School students, and in turn be mentored by recent alumni, was designed to foster meaningful mentorships and professional development opportunities.

“We are committed to this program because it provides students with the resources for success,” said Shanesha Christmas, the youth leadership coordinator for the Waltham Partnership for Youth. “Students enjoy having mentors, but love having someone a bit older than them to learn from.”

The initiative enabled Brandeis students to network and form connections with BIPOC professionals in the area, providing them with a comfortable environment to seek advice on the systemic challenges they may experience on their path to careers, and learn to advocate for themselves in the workplace and classroom. 

The program included workshops, online and in-person mentor and mentee meetings, and the support of the Brandeis Department of Community Service, Brandeis Legacy Fund, Brandeis Intercultural Center, Waltham Partnership for Youth (WPY), and Waltham Black Future Fund. Together, mentors, mentees, workshop facilitators, and community partners created opportunities  for community, dialogue, and growth.

When the program launched in the fall semester, Brandeis University students involved with the program were assigned a mentor and attended monthly gatherings.

Jolecia Saunderson ‘24, a double major in African and African American Studies and Politics, joined the program for an opportunity to foster connection and empowerment with people of different ages with similar interests. She looked forward to connecting with her mentor and bonding with her ‘mentee.’

“There’s something powerful about sharing knowledge, experiences, and stories with others,” said Saunderson. “I’m grateful to have met inspiring people I can relate to at different stages of their lives.”


Fall closing ceremony

Brandeis students posed together during their final fall ceremony.

Each session focused on topics like leadership, mental health and financial literacy, with students meeting in a group discussion led by a variety of community leaders. “The racial wealth gap is not given enough visibility. When witnessing rapid gentrification back where I am from in Brooklyn I’m starting to see how this greatly impacts community members that have resided there for years,” said Saunderson. “These experiences further emphasized the importance of investing back into my community to protect the culture, love, and connection that lives there.”

Aside from group discussions, each student was paired with a Brandeis alumni to meet with for one-on-one zoom sessions. Jolecia Saunderson was paired with Winnie Rugamba MA COEX ‘20, a graduate of the Heller School.

“It was a natural connection,” said Rugamba. “After our initial conversation we dived right into talking about life on campus.”

“Winnie really helped me figure out some next big steps,” said Saunderson. “She gave me enriching advice and helped me learn how to assess devoting my time into spaces that helped me grow as a person and leaving spaces that didn’t as well as the power of living in the present. Through this I have been taking my final moments as a sophomore  to enjoy the moment and though I am excited for my upcoming junior year, just learning to take the time and space to be present has been very peaceful.”

The two met weekly throughout the fall semester, and continue to stay in touch. “It can be so difficult to find your community as a person of color,” said Rugamba. “I hope Jolecia and all of the students within the program know they are supported.”

As the fall semester concluded, Brandeis students were paired with their Waltham High School student mentees. Similar to the fall, monthly sessions were held both at Brandeis University and Waltham High School.

Jolecia Saunderson was paired with Tracy Das, a Waltham High School senior she quickly hit it off with. “It’s so nice to have another older figure to look up to. I have two sisters, but it’s amazing seeing another young woman of color in college guiding the way,” said Das.

Roses in Concrete high school students

Waltham High School students gathered during the final ceremony event.

The two connected over similar interests ranging from astrology signs to aspiring to work in law. “Seeing another student of color pursuing a career in law makes me feel like I can do it too,” said Das. “It’s inspiring just to be in a room of people sharing their exciting goals.”

As the spring semester continued on, Das started receiving acceptances from colleges of her choice. Saunderson, thrilled to support Das during this exciting time, has complete faith she will get into the school of her dreams. “I’m speaking it into existence and I know she’s going to make it happen. I want to encourage her to continue to follow her dreams, and to know that Sky’s the Limit '' said Saunderson. “Support is the biggest thing you can give someone.”

“Roses in Concrete is a program that came to life in response to students voicing the power of community and diverse representation in mentorship,” said Lucas Malo, Director of Community Service, who was instrumental in connecting the Waltham community partners with Brandeis students and alumni to launch the program. “Having participants from different age groups sharing a space and building community together - it’s made it an impactful program,” said Malo.

While this year’s program concluded on April 7 after the final ceremony, the program partners are excited for the years to come. “There’s a lot of optimism behind this,” said Habiba Braimah, Director of the Intercultural Center. “Representation expands the possibilities for students. When they see someone who looks like them in spaces that weren’t designed for them, it becomes more attainable and expands their world.”

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