Stories MATES Stories Inside MATES Junior – More than Fun and Games Walking into the MATES Junior afterschool session at Avondale Intermediate, there is a buzz of activity in the room. Year 8 students and their mentors are scattered throughout the library, gathered in pairs and groups working on projects, chatting, playing cards or charades. “Don’t be surprised if it looks like there’s not that much academic learning going on,” Sally Shin, the mentor Coordinator warns. “It may look like only fun and games happening, however, in the middle of the chatting and the laughter, connections are forming and students are benefitting.” With MATES Junior, the goal is to build relationships, from which confidence and positivity start to flow out into other areas of life, including the students' learning. Time has proven that this approach works. Where some schools may have been sceptical at first, every year the students’ academic results show that they progress more than their peers with similar challenges who are not on the programme. Teachers nominate students they believe will benefit from the programme, with the demand always higher than the space available, often with students on waiting lists. Each MATES Junior cohort has a maximum of 16 students, each allocated their own University student Mentor. Mentors and mentees are carefully matched for common interests; Shin says she deliberately matches pairs cross-culturally to help break down barriers and shatter preconceptions between ethnic groups. Shin points out “It’s good to give the students opportunities at this age to interact with people from ethnicities they might not otherwise get to know.” Having new experiences is one of the special things about MATES Junior. In September there is the much-anticipated “University for a Day” event, where students spend the day in the city at Auckland University to get a sense of what it is like. “Many of these students haven’t been into the city before or to a University. When they go there, it broadens their horizons, they see people like themselves who are students at Uni and it can open their minds to the possibilities.” Shin has been a mentor and now a coordinator for four years, and this year, after the lockdown, she can see a difference in the students. “They’re so ready to talk and open up, this year. Usually it takes much longer for them to get comfortable but not this year.” The new world is presenting new challenges for our youth, and they need help. “Our mentors aren’t professional counsellors, they’re young people too. So when something heavy gets shared we have a process where we involve the school to get the ongoing support that student needs.” Looking around the room it’s clear that the students are relaxed, engaged and thoroughly enjoying MATES. Shin’s enthusiasm for MATES Junior is contagious “It’s so beneficial – I wish every student could have a mentor.” The mentoring connection is powerful, builds confidence and improves the students’ sense of wellbeing, which sets them up for success when they start high school.