Multi-state mentorship program asks students, ‘Why You?’
By Charles Johnson
Several years ago, Dr. Renaldo Blocker was reflecting on the importance of mentors in his life. “We realized that we were fortunate to have a support system throughout our academic and professional career.” Blocker is a Mayo Clinic healthcare systems engineering assistant professor.
“We were fortunate to have these people in our lives… Many of our peers did not.” Blocker wanted to help other students benefit from such support – and more. From this emerged “Why You?”
The support system Blocker envisioned back in 2003 included mentoring, but, he explained, it was “way more than that.” In 2011, he and Dr. Antonio Daniels co-founded the “Why You?” Initiative, Inc. (YU?), a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization.
The program was about more than providing resources: It’s about “connecting with other people who can help me move forward in my life.” Blocker added, “We still have those same mentors [and the] same support system today that continually challenges us to move forward and become even better and brighter.”
Asked about the group’s title, Blocker recalled, “We were trying to come up with a good name. We said we should be asking a rhetorical question and we came up with ‘Why You?’ We are questioning the students on why me [to] help them understand that they are needed, [they] are unique, they are valued, and they have a sense of purpose for the greater community. They don’t realize that.”
Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Blocker is a first-generation college graduate with degrees in computer science and industrial and systems engineering. “We provide a support system for students either younger than us [or] older than us,” he said. “As we become more educated, we provide a theoretical and conceptual framework in how we approach it.”
He said that of the estimated 180 students participating in the program, nearly half are males. All are from low-income backgrounds. “We have students in 17 states. We don’t have branches. Ages range from 15-year-olds to the oldest person in the organization, who is 47 years old.
“Eighty percent of our budget comes from me and the co-founder; the other  percent comes from our friends,” Blocker said of the group’s funding. Last year, his organization received several grants, including one from the St. Paul Foundation “that helped with our programming,” he reported.
Blocker said there are monthly webinars, which usually begin in May and run through September. He added there is also an on-line ConFab being planned for this September.
“We have students across the board,” he continued. “A lot of our students are STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] majors — about 40 percent. We have students who are in the arts and humanities, pre-law [and] medical school.
“We are more of a long-term engagement that includes not just high school and undergraduate students – we do the gamut. We try to tackle high school students and post-high school students, the ones that maybe graduate from high school but need someone in their life to show them and support them through a higher pace.
“Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative does fall in line in what we do,” he said.
Why You? held its first in-person ConFab last month in Minneapolis expecting about 180 people, but nearly 200 persons showed up, said Blocker. “I thought the numbers would be real low because it was our first time. We were surprisingly pleased with the turnout.
“They [the conference participants] thought it was an excellent event and said they would like to come again. People came away feeling empowered. The purpose was for all those students that we serve [to have] an opportunity to come to Minnesota and actually meet some of their mentors face-to-face for the first time.”
There is no formal requirement to participate in Why You? “We have an on-line application process that we open up in June and November,” Blocker concluded. “The only requirement is that we want students to want to be helped. If those students don’t want to be helped, we can’t reach out to help them.”
For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.confab.whyyou.org.