Refugee students receive support through LPS mentoring program

North Star freshman Mahdi always breaks into a big smile when he and English teacher Bryan Barnacle talk about soccer together.
Those goal-scoring moments illustrate how important the high school’s refugee mentoring program has been to both of them.
Mahdi and Barnacle have built trust with each other this year through the STRIVE mentoring initiative. It’s an in-school meeting program that serves high school refugee students who have lived in the U.S. for less than five years. Mahdi, whose family moved to the United States from Afghanistan three years ago, said he has enjoyed talking with Barnacle about everything from video games to soccer goals.
“I think it’s been good,” Mahdi said. “I’ve had a lot of fun.”
STRIVE stands for “Success Through Responsibility, Initiative, Values and Education." Twenty North Star staff members are helping 25 refugee students in the program, which also has branches at Northeast and Lincoln High.

Barnacle said he has been blessed to meet students like Mahdi. He guided a Yazidi mentee for four years before being paired with Mahdi this past fall.
“I would just say there’s so much power to a story,” Barnacle said. “That’s what people like Mahdi bring to the community. There’s so much richness and life and talent.”
Barnacle then turned to Mahdi and smiled.
“You make this place better. That’s the truth. That’s why I’ve learned so much from you. Not everyone has the same story. You just have to sit down and ask.”
Bailey Morley has helped dozens of students like Mahdi in her four years with the program. She is an English learners (EL) teacher at North Star and leads the school’s STRIVE branch. She handles day-to-day tasks such as pairing mentors and mentees and organizing educational field trips.
Morley said the mentoring friendships have created meaningful moments for both students and adults.
“It’s been so good to see the ways the kids can connect with the teachers and to see how powerful that relationship can be,” Morley said. “Spending a few minutes every week with a student and taking the time to ask them how they’re doing and how their family is doing is something that means a lot to them.”
The MENTOR Nebraska organization implemented STRIVE at Lincoln Public Schools in 2018. The program utilizes school staff like teachers, counselors, social workers and administrators as mentors to help them easily connect during the school day. LPS has served 332 students through the program, which is being highlighted for National Mentoring Month. 

“A lot of those relationships have lasted even after the kids have graduated, and they’re still able to be connected. It’s really neat,” Morley said.
MENTOR Nebraska Executive Director Melissa Mayo said STRIVE is especially important in Lincoln, which has welcomed many new refugees in the past two decades. The Lincoln New Americans Task Force – a coalition of nearly 70 organizations and community members – said in 2019 that more than 30,000 people from 150 countries have made new homes here.
According to the nonprofit, the goals of STRIVE are to connect refugee youth with the support of a positive and caring adult, increase civic and social engagement of participants in their schools and communities and promote educational and vocational pathways after high school.

Mayo said she has been impressed with the way LPS has approached mentoring initiatives.
“Lincoln Public Schools is a true champion of mentoring, setting the gold standard when it comes to meaningful educational partnerships and reinforcing a holistic approach to ensure student success,” Mayo said. “The true mark of a healthy partnership is the ability to provide feedback and continuous input to meet the ever-evolving needs of students over the years. MENTOR Nebraska has appreciated the willingness of district and building leadership to bring new approaches and models of mentoring to their schools, so all young people have access to mentoring.”
In addition to weekly mentoring sessions, STRIVE participants go on field trips across eastern Nebraska. They travel to important cultural and educational spots to learn more about community and government topics.
North Star students explored greenhouses and animal science buildings at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln East Campus last year, and they picked up legislative knowledge during a tour of the state capitol building. Morley said they will visit Omaha’s new science center and other college campuses this spring.
Morley said one field trip in particular brought all mentors and mentees closer together. Many North Star students of Yazidi heritage were forced to flee Iraq with their families after ISIS attacked their homeland in 2014. They toured an exhibit at the University of Nebraska-Omaha last year that presented information about the conflict in Iraq.
“It’s a huge group of students that we have in the program, so that was really incredible,” Morley said. “The kids got to see pictures of areas where they had lived, and some of the kids even knew a person that did one of the artworks that was in the exhibit. It was really powerful.”
Morley said the program has grown with additional refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine. She continues to encourage teachers, administrators and staff members to become mentees.
Barnacle said the best part of STRIVE is being able to enjoy day-to-day conversations with students. He and Mahdi have spoken about the similar snowfall levels of the Afghan capital of Kabul and Barnacle’s hometown in Minnesota, different levels of the video game Fortnite and the skills of soccer players like Ronaldo.
“As you open yourself up to it, there’s so much good that happens,” Barnacle said. “Mahdi’s a great example of resilience. Every mentor and mentee situation that I can look at, the teachers are looking at the students and saying, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of resilience, there’s a lot of hope.’ It’s just a lot of great connections that come from this.”
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Published: January 26, 2024, Updated: January 26, 2024

From left, North Star English learners (EL) teacher Bailey Morley, North Star freshman Mahdi and North Star English teacher Bryan Barnacle smile in the high school. All three are involved in the STRIVE mentoring program. Morley leads the school's STRIVE branch and Barnacle and Mahdi have formed a mentoring partnership.