Mentoring School Age Students for Success

Recently, Michael Sahn, the Firm’s Managing Member, had a conversation with Partner Joshua Brookstein, Senior Counsel Eugene Martin, and Associates Chris DeNicola, Stelios Karatzias, Emili Klom, and Alexis Majano about their roles as mentors to elementary and middle school students throughout Nassau County.

Michael: Josh, you lead the Firm’s participation in the Nassau County Bar Association’s student mentoring program. Please describe the program and why mentoring is important to you and the other attorneys in the Firm who participate.

Josh: The Nassau County Bar Association’s student mentoring program pairs attorneys with elementary and middle school students throughout Nassau County. Mentors and mentees meet bi-weekly for 45 minutes. Many of the students that are selected to participate in this program are identified by school guidance counselors as having difficulties with their academics, social skills with peers, or potential disruptions at home.

Mentoring is a big part of my life and professional journey. Mentors have served as a critical resource to me when I am about to make major personal or professional decisions. Mentors serve as a sounding board for new ideas, offer guidance, and make invaluable introductions to people of interest. As a former teacher and school administrator, I witnessed the benefits that mentoring programs provide to young students. I am fortunate to work with amazing people at the Firm who are willing to give their time to serve as mentors to the next generation of leaders.

Michael: Stelios, you have been a mentor for two years at Woodland Middle School. How has your approach to mentoring changed from year one to year two?

Stelios: As a mentor I implement my own “AAA Standard”, a three-step approach, when meeting a new mentee. First, I assess the mentee’s mannerisms, vocal tone, and their willingness to communicate. Second, I acknowledge their basic interests, preferences, and hobbies. Lastly, I personally adapt to better receive them as individuals. During my initial year, I mentored a student that was outspoken and willing to engage in any conversation. He was extremely active in sports and spent a majority of his time outdoors with friends. However, it affected his performance academically as well as his respect for authority. In contrast, my second year was with a new mentee that was musically inclined and extremely advanced with technology. The mentee struggled with developing interpersonal relationships with his peers because he felt misunderstood by his family, classmates, and teachers. In both instances, I assessed and acknowledged the mentees for their different qualities and traits. I used my own similar experiences to try and relate to the things that motivate them or bring them joy. The development between you and your mentee must be genuine. It is important to not confuse adaptation with replication.

Michael: What does effective mentorship look like to you?

Stelios: In my opinion, a successful and effective mentor is an individual that can build trust with their mentee. In a majority of instances, young people are quite often misunderstood and it results in the building of barriers or rebellious behavior. Self-improvement is a personal and individual choice, but by creating a trustworthy relationship with your mentee and being an open ear without judgment, it also begins their path towards improvement. As a mentor it is difficult to gauge a mentee’s progress as each journey is unique, but it begins with their faith in the support you are trying to give and seeing you as a friend.

Michael: Eugene and Emili, you both mentor 4th grade students at Grand Avenue Elementary School in Uniondale. How would you describe your experience serving as mentors?

Emili: I found my experience mentoring at Grand Avenue to be truly heartwarming. At first, I was a little uneasy as to how I would get along with my mentee, and if she would even like me but we ended up having a lot in common. She seemed like she was always excited to be there and to be a part of this opportunity. During each session, I looked forward to being able to meet with her and try to make an impact in her life.

Eugene: Last year was my first year at Grand Avenue and I am thrilled to return this year. I had a terrific experience serving as a mentor. It was a pleasure getting to know my mentee and some of the other students in the program. During each mentoring session, myself and another mentor would sit at the same table as we tried to balance having fun by playing board games with the students, with talking about some important life lessons that would benefit the students. Some of the life lessons we discussed were: (i) the importance of reading a book every day; (ii) trying new things in life; and (iii) the importance of taking risks and putting yourself outside of one’s comfort zone. The combination of having fun and discussing life lessons provided an enjoyable experience for both the students and mentors.

Michael: I heard that during the annual end-of-year mentor/mentee lunch at the Nassau County Bar Association, both of your mentees shared how the mentoring program has impacted their lives. How did their words make you feel?

Eugene: It was very nice to hear that my mentee enjoyed our time together and wanted to share his experience with me with the group that assembled at the luncheon. His words really validated my goal at the beginning of the year which was to provide my mentee with a great experience for the time we spent together, especially since life has been so difficult for kids these last few years.

Emili: I was proud that my mentee had the courage to go up and speak in front of everyone at the Bar Association. I know how intimidated I would have felt at her age to do something like that, and I was glad she had an experience that made her feel impacted enough and comfortable enough to share her thoughts on the program. Although I was happy that she felt she had a positive experience with me as her mentor, when I was watching her speak, it hit me that the program was coming to an end, and I felt sad. I was excited, however, to return to Grand Avenue this year and continue to build our mentor-mentee relationship.

Michael: Chris, you have been paired with your mentee for the past three years. How would you describe the mentoring sessions this year as compared to last year?

Chris: The mentoring sessions were pretty similar, but I believe that consistency is a good thing. One change is that since I had the same mentee the last two years, I believe he is more comfortable this year and the sessions are more effective as a result.

Michael: How has being a mentor changed the way you practice as a lawyer?

Chris: I think my approach to practicing law has remained the same which has always been to be respectful to my colleagues and any person that I work with. If anything, the program has reminded me to stay conscious of that since I want to make sure I’m setting a good example for my mentee.

Michael: Alexis, you volunteered to launch the Bar Association’s first high school dual language mentorship program at Schreiber High School in Port Washington. All of the students were enrolled in the school’s English as a New Language Program. How did the students respond to the program? What were some of your highlights?

Alexis: Many of the students reacted positively, especially those who were actively involved in other school programs that involved learning about our legal system. Certain students attend out of state functions in Washington, D.C. where they would tour specific landmarks and ask us questions on how laws are enacted through Congress.

Michael: This question is for everyone. Your fellow mentors consist of other attorneys and judges. How has working alongside your colleagues from both the Bench and the Bar contributed to your professional growth?

Emili: It was nice to work with people in my field that were in different parts of their careers than I am. I enjoyed getting to know them, learning about their journeys, and finding out how they got to where they are today. It was also nice to see that no matter where they were in their career, they still took the time out of their schedules to participate in the mentorship program.

Chris: The mentorship program has introduced me to several other members of the legal profession. I think it’s been a great way to meet new legal professionals and share our experiences as attorneys. As a young attorney, it’s been great to hear some of the stories that the more experienced members of the program have shared with me.

Eugene: It was nice to get to know the other mentors and establish a personal relationship with them that I believe will carry over to benefit me professionally. Now, due to such relationships, I can reach out to a fellow mentor regarding a transaction or case that they may have experience with and get some guidance from them. I am able to be a resource to them as well.

Alexis: My colleagues’ experiences in their fields provided insight on different practice areas of the law. Their experience in litigation and employment law, coupled with my experience in transactional law, allowed the students to receive a multifaceted view of practicing law in New York.

Michael: What role, if any, have mentors played in your life?

Chris: Throughout my life I’ve had several mentors that I’ve gone to for both professional and personal advice. I think it is very important to have people that you can go to when faced with challenges. I find it always helps getting advice from someone that has been in my shoes before.

Alexis: The few mentors in my life have taught me that there is always something new to learn every day. My mentors have not only supported me through my professional endeavors but also through personal challenges.

Eugene: Mentors have played and continue to play a role in my life by providing me with guidance and encouragement in both my professional and personal life.

Emili: The biggest mentor in my life has definitely been my mom. I think the most important thing a mentor can do is reinforce the simple things. That’s what my mom did for me and what I intended to do with my mentee when I began the program. With my mentee, I tried to focus on things like being confident, being kind to others, and taking school seriously. I believe these are values my mom instilled in me as a child and ones that will set a strong foundation for the future for any person.

Stelios: I am grateful and honored to say that I have more than one mentor in my life. I am fortunate to have a mentor in my personal life and several mentors in my professional career. To say our journey cannot be done alone is a falsehood, it very well can be accomplished but it is knowing that your journey does not have to be accomplished alone is the truest reward. There are individuals, such as my mentors, who have shown me that with their support and encouragement can divert me from unnecessary struggles and pitfalls. I was once told a quote that holds true today: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – President John Quincy Adams. We should all strive to be leaders to each other.