This month for our Employee Spotlight series, we spoke with team member Katie Stearns, who is leading the corporate and community engagement work for iMentor Chicago. Katie and the entire Chicago team knocked it out of the park this year with their recruitment and partnership cultivation efforts; kudos! Let’s learn more about Katie and iMentor Chicago’s achievements...
iMentor: As a college success organization, we enjoy recognizing the academic of achievements of our students, mentors and team members. With that said, what college did you attend and what was your major?
Katie: I went to Northwestern University, just north of Chicago. I was a communication studies major and loved studying relational and organizational communication strategies, interpersonal conflict, and negotiation. My favorite class wasn’t a comm class, though – it was a Russian literature class with an amazing professor who made me fall in love with The Brothers Karamazov.
iMentor: What was your most memorable college experience?
Katie: I was really involved in alternative breaks at Northwestern. If you’ve never heard of them, alternative breaks are immersive service trips where a group of students spend time learning about social issues and serving a community in partnership with local organizations. I chopped onions and delivered meals to people living with AIDS in NYC, helped rebuild a South Carolina church that had been destroyed by racially motivated arson, and enjoyed dinner with people facing homelessness in Denver. Those experiences bent my heart toward social justice, service, and the power of community. By my senior year, I was directing the program and sending 18 trips out across the country. It was such an important part of my college experience that I now serve on the board of directors for Break Away, the national organization that supports alternative break programs.
iMentor: How did you first hear about iMentor and what made you want to work here?
Katie: Let’s just say job postings work! I loved my previous work, building large-scale corporate volunteer programs and working with partners to create amazing volunteer experiences in communities around the world, but my desire to again focus on my beloved hometown of Chicago was strong. I’m a firm believer that one great volunteer experience can ignite lifelong active citizenship, so I was excited to build our mentor community -– and hopefully create some lifelong volunteers – as iMentor got more established here. The iMentor model was so appealing – reaching every student at a school, providing expert support for volunteers, and creating real results that can change the future of Chicago.
iMentor: What do you do in your role as senior director of corporate and community engagement?
Katie: It’s a long mouthful of a title but really what it means is that I have the privilege of leading our mentor recruitment and engagement strategy and building corporate partnerships. Mentors are the lifeblood of our program. iMentor’s curriculum, staff, school partners and inspirational students are amazing but were it not for the time and talent of our volunteer mentors, our work would not be possible. I create and drive our recruitment and partnership strategy to ensure that EVERY one of our students has a college-educated mentor to serve as their champion. I am also responsible for cultivating corporate partnerships so we can engage employee mentors, support a company’s community impact goals, and secure sustainable funding that will enable us to grow.
iMentor: What is the most rewarding experience you’ve had so far while working for iMentor Chicago?
Katie: Mentor recruitment is a numbers game in many ways – we know we need X number of applications and Y number of people to attend mentor orientation in order to end up with just the right number of mentors for our students. But it’s incredibly personal and relationship-driven work. I get to connect with people and hear their stories. SUCH diverse stories, too. We have mentors that are first-generation college students themselves, mentors that are products of the Chicago Public Schools system, mentors from Canada, Mexico and Europe, mentors who want to give back but feel self-conscious about how “easy” their own college application process was relative to what our students face. My most rewarding experiences have been in connecting with people in that “getting started” moment, when they are excited or nervous or wondering how one person can make a difference. The volunteer team gets to show them how to put that energy to work.
iMentor: Do you have a favorite iMentor memory?
Katie: Many months ago, I scheduled a mentor orientation for November 9, never thinking about the fact that it was the night after the most divisive election in recent history. That was an emotional and complicated day for everyone, no matter which candidate you favored. Personally, I wasn’t feeling ready to be an outgoing, engaging, effective presenter for a two-hour orientation. And I wasn’t sure how many people would show up, what the mood in the room would be, and how I would possibly speak to what the election result meant for the students iMentor serves.
What happened that night overwhelmed me. Although some volunteers bailed, the seven who did show up easily formed our most diverse orientation of the entire year. All different ages. All different ethnicities and backgrounds. Every single one of them had heard about iMentor in a different way (music to a recruiter’s ears – our efforts are working!). Completely different college experiences and career fields – a medical student, a foundation program officer, a finance guy, an educator. What they had in common was their choice to step up as a mentor and the sense that even with the 24-hour newsfeed and the protests raging blocks away from our office, there was no more important place for them to be on November 9 than at a volunteer orientation that would prepare them to champion and learn from a student from one of our city’s low-income communities. The solidarity across differences, sense of action and responsibility, and spirit of community in that room was simply incredible and I can’t wait until these seven are matched.
iMentor: How was iMentor Chicago able to innovate to meet its recruitment goals this program year?
Katie: I am really proud that we had more than enough mentors to match all of our students this year – and we have a waiting list! That overwhelming response reflects Chicagoans at our best – there is an incredible spirit of volunteerism here. Making it happen was a mix of excellent strategy and pure hustle – we recruited mentors at corporate info sessions, community events, churches, festivals, online, and pretty much everywhere in between. We tripled the size of our program this year, so we had to think about both scale (we never want to tell a student we don’t have a mentor for him) and substance (diversifying our mentor base to better reflect our students and our city). We were creative about identifying where potential mentors were (whether that was the African Festival of the Arts, a farmer’s market or a corporate conference room, and thoughtful about our approach. It’s definitely not a perfect science – there’s so much art to recruitment!
iMentor: What new partnerships are you most excited about and what do you hope to achieve with your partners?
Katie: Now that we’re in our second program year in Chicago, we’re serving 700 students and engaging 700 mentors. We’re seeing partnerships grow and deepen in wonderful ways – companies that helped us recruit mentors are generously investing in our work to ensure we can serve more Chicago students. Organizations like Soul City Church and Rush University Medical Center are working with us to engage their communities as mentors and provide opportunities for our students, and it’s opening us up to a more diverse set of mentors in every way (race, age, industry, family college experience, neighborhood). I’m especially excited about the growth of a few of our corporate partnerships – one company grew the number of employees serving as mentors by 900% this year!
iMentor: We are weeks away from welcoming in 2017, what is your wish for iMentor Chicago in the new year?
Katie: Our whole team is really excited for 2017, since our first class of seniors will graduate in June. My wish is that all of our seniors would head off to a college experience that is the right fit for their goals. I know with our amazing Chicago mentors standing by their side, anything is possible for these students!