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Mentoring comes full circle for a Bridge to Employment program student

January 21, 2020

Jose Hernandez Morales was a sophomore at the New Brunswick Health Sciences Technology High School in New Jersey when he first met his mentor Oscar Morera. That was when Oscar, the former Head of Operations, Consumer Health and Wellness at Johnson & Johnson (J&J), shared his first life lesson with his new mentee: It is okay to fall down and to fail, but it is not okay to stay there; you need to have grit to get back up.

Jose knows he was fortunate when he connected with Oscar in 2014. Mentored youth have more positive attitudes toward school and are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college than those who do not have a mentor. But, 8.5 million youth in the United States in 2009 lacked these role models. Johnson & Johnson’s Bridge to Employment (BTE) program is addressing that gap.

Jose and Oscar were participants in BTE, a global program that works in underserved communities to connect 14-to-18-year-old students with mentors from J&J’s staff and provides activities to improve performance on college entrance exams, career exploration and 21st century workforce skills.

FHI 360 provides management for the global BTE program, offers technical assistance and resources to communities and supports community partners in capacity building. FHI 360’s National Institute for Work and Learning (NIWL)’s staff provide startup strategic planning and support to sustain more than 1,000 students annually. FHI 360 also conducts workshops for new mentors to ground them in youth development principles and how to work with teens. These activities prepare the employee volunteers to give back to their communities through building strong mentoring relationships.

From the start, Jose and Oscar had similar thoughts about what makes a good mentor and mentee relationship. Jose said that mentors need to “be really empathetic and understanding of other people's situations.” Oscar said that the relationship with Jose was “a two-way learning street.” That foundation started their relationship, which developed into a friendship over the next three years.

Jose learned a variety of skills from participating in BTE workshops that he says are skills he practices to this day. Jose credits Oscar for many of his accomplishments, which include sound study skills, application to college and a strong resume.

Attending BTE events together built their relationship, one that allowed open conversations without fear of judgment. Jose said, “Oscar is a diary that actually talks back to you and gives you advice!” Jose also felt that he had a unique mentor in Oscar. Oscar encouraged him to learn from other volunteers in the program, so Jose was able to build a wide network of mentors.

After graduating as salutatorian from high school and completing the BTE program, Jose applied to the biomedical engineering program at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. But, like many freshmen, he became overwhelmed as he began his studies. Jose talked with Oscar and others in his BTE network and found a new opportunity. J&J had launched a pilot college retention program called Pathway to Success, managed by FHI 360. Through the pilot, FHI 360 offers additional courses to navigate college, and J&J provides the students with competitive internships. With Oscar’s guidance, Jose applied to Pathway to Success and embarked on another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Following in Oscar’s footsteps to pay it forward, Jose has also become a volunteer and mentor. Through his interest in music and visual arts, he facilitated a Mexican art exhibit at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University and wants to help create more spaces where artists can share their work. In the coming months, he will mentor at a local elementary school, where he will host a Women in STEM2D (WiSTEM2D) workshop and conduct an activity he learned during a Pathway to Success summer experience. As a grateful and proud BTE alumnus, he commits himself to giving back to the program and sharing his experiences with new participants. Jose’s continued presence in the Pathway to Success and BTE programs is a daily reminder of the compassion and grit that BTE youth around the globe embody.

Photo credit: Jessica Scranton/FHI 360