These Young Social Entrepreneurs Are Working To Bridge The Achievement Gap

Written by: Brady Drake

According to the 2012 ND Point in Time Survey, 20 percent of Fargo’s homeless population is under the age of 18. Two recent college graduates, Nadia Mitchell of NDSU and Sean Feeney of Concordia College, are working to mitigate the adverse effects that the instability of homelessness and other factors can have on children through their nonprofit that launches its pilot program in January, Be Bold.

Be Bold’s pilot program will pair area college students with the most at-risk students from Cheney Middle School in West Fargo for one hour per week mentoring sessions. Mitchell, who is set to accept a full-time position with United Health Group in Minneapolis this coming June, says that they’re starting their search for passionate individuals with social work and education majors but stresses that anyone can be involved. Mitchell graduated with a degree in business administration and Feeney is a mathematical finance and computer science graduate who is looking to study quantum physics in graduate school.

The two social entrepreneurs came together during their time in school. Mitchell wanted to start a mentoring program for homeless students and Feeney was already mentoring students in the area, but it was Feeney’s preparation for a scholarship application that really got the ball rolling towards forming an organization.

Feeney didn’t know Mitchell when he started researching the achievement gap in Minnesota for the Phillips Scholars Program, a scholarship fund designed to support and help those who intend to dedicate a portion of their lives to community service implement their projects. Feeney didn’t end up pursuing the scholarship in the end, but he did find a pursuit.

Achievement gap- observed persistent disparities in measures of educational performance among subgroups of U.S. students, especially groups defined by socioeconomic status, race/ ethnicity and gender.

These Young Social Entrepreneurs
Nadia Mitchell
Photo by Angel Banna

One study estimates that the human potential lost as a result of the educational achievement gap is the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.

 *“The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools,” McKinsey & Company, Social Sector Office, 2009)

These Young Social Entrepreneurs
Sean Feeney
Photo by Aya Al Shakarchi

During the research, someone I knew at the financial aid office said, ‘you should go down to the local homeless shelter to see what they see and what they think about the achievement gap,’” said Feeney, who currently works for Northwestern Mutual as a Financial Representative.

What Feeney noticed when he took up that advice was that the achievement gap was simply the outcome. The real problem was the inputs causing the achievement gap like a lack of stability at home, a lack of positive role models, or living in a homeless shelter for six months of the school year.

“It’s not their fault. It’s just their home life,” said Feeney.

Around the same time of coming to that realization, Feeney was also told by a volunteer at an organization that one way to make a big impact was by mentoring some kids. And while he did start mentoring and making an impact, he realized that the mentorship program itself could’ve used a bit more structure.

“I got a background check and after that, it was like, ‘here you go’ they give you the kids and it’s up to you to figure out what to do with them,” said Feeney.

Through mutual connections, Feeney was eventually introduced to Scott Meyer, the Ozbun Executive Director of Entrepreneurship at NDSU. Meyer then introduced Feeney to Mitchell, describing her as “a girl who is really interested in social entrepreneurship.” And, Be Bold was essentially born from there out of a discussion over coffee

“Growing up in Minneapolis, I have seen homelessness every day of my life,” said Mitchell. “There’s literally a whole bridge where we have tents lined up. It has always angered me because we call this country the best country in the world, but we have people who are homeless. I don’t think anyone should be homeless in this country. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“There weren’t a lot of people in my life that I felt like I could look up to,” said Feeney whose mom passed away when he was 18 years old. “I went for a stretch of my life where there wasn’t really any adult in my life that I could look up to or that was there for me. I wanted to offer that opportunity to kids in the achievement gap.”

As they started to develop their program, Feeney and Mitchell interviewed organizations throughout the Fargo Moorhead area that were already doing mentorship programs in order to learn more about how to best help children. After the interviews, the duo came to the belief that pairing the at-risk students with college students would be a great way to give the students someone to look up to while tapping a market for volunteers that wasn’t currently being used on a large scale.

“We’re trying to help by giving them someone to look up to so they know they can make it there as well,” said Mitchell.

“Going through the schools to find the at-risk students is really important because you can’t help every kid that is homeless just by working through one homeless shelter, they don’t all go there,” said Feeney. “However, they do all go to school and the schools have access to the information on who is at risk or homeless.”

Mitchell and Feeney also have taken advantage of their time with a social entrepreneur cohort at Emerging Prairie and say they would be nowhere without the help of Greg Tehven or Scott Meyer. While they were both still in school, they were named finalists of the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge.

For now, the mentorship sessions will be done via zoom due to the pandemic. However, Feeney and Mitchell are both hopeful that the program will have a profound impact on the children.

“They know on this day, at this hour, they’re going to get to talk to this person,” said Mitchell “They know they can tell them anything and it will be fine. They can voice all of their fears, concerns and my happy moments.”

If you know someone who would make a good mentor or if you would like to donate to the cause contact Nadia Mitchell at [email protected] or Sean Feeney at [email protected]

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.