What started as a simple letter-writing project between University of Wisconsin-Whitewater students and second graders in Beloit, Wisconsin, has transformed into a flourishing mentorship program.
And now — it’s award-winning.
The Little Scholars Program has won a Program Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Wisconsin State Council on Affirmative Action. The program’s founders and participants will be celebrated at the council’s annual Diversity Awards Ceremony at the Wisconsin State Capitol Assembly Chambers on Thursday, Oct. 24.
Little Scholars is the invention of spouses who sought solutions to struggles they were encountering in their respective jobs.
John Dominguez, coordinator of the King/Chávez Scholars program at UW-Whitewater, was looking for ways to motivate his freshman students to become leaders at the university and to make an impact in their community.
Heather Dominguez, a teacher at Converse Elementary School in Beloit, recognized the difficulties some students were having with mastering language and literacy skills and was looking for ways to motivate her students to read and write — and have fun at the same time.
Little Scholars was born.
“UW-Whitewater students began writing letters to the kids — old school, no computers. Actual handwritten notes that explained what it was like to be in college, what they eat, and where they live,” John Dominguez said.
The young students were ecstatic to receive the correspondence and replied in kind. They began reading and writing more and more as they came to see their collegiate pen pals as trusted friends and role models.
Some students shared very personal struggles, including dealing with difficult family situations and homelessness. Warhawks responded with empathy and encouragement.
“The Little Scholars Experience is a reminder that you have the ability to impact every life that you come across. For younger children, the responsibility becomes even stronger because it is easier to make imprints on them,” said Rasheed Goodman, an accounting and general management major from Chicago, Illinois.
“The little scholars program gave me light in a dark part of my life. Seeing (my pen pal) smile and open up to me was one of the best feelings I have experienced. I would like our relationship to grow past my freshman year and to continue as she grows as a person. I would love to see where she can go and what she can do,” said Montana Petersen, a general management and entrepreneurship major from Salem, Wisconsin.
The enthusiasm among students at both schools demanded in-person visits. The UW-Whitewater students visited Converse Elementary, and, most recently, the little scholars came to the university in April to tour campus, visit classrooms, and work on STEM projects with their collegiate buddies.
The program is so successful, the number of classes participating has grown from four to eight classes in one year and has expanded to include third-grade students in Beloit.
“Little Scholars is a pipeline for college that focuses in on the value of school and exceptional learning experiences for these kids,” John Dominguez said. “It’s inspired our college students to engage with youth, find their calling to teach, and see that they can serve as transformative role models to the next generation.”