Middle school mentor wins Monroe Prize

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January 24, 2011

11:57 PM

Nearly every Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m., while most College of William and Mary students are still sleeping off last night’s good time, William Morris ’11 gathers with other students on the Sadler Center Terrace to carpool over to Toano Middle School for its mentoring program, Rites of Passage. Once there, the volunteers and children will recite self affirming statements, participate in games and other physical activities and work on character development.

“It’s hard sometimes since it’s a Saturday morning, but you’d be surprised how many people actually show up,” said Morris.

For this work, and other mentoring and community outreach initiatives, Morris will receive the 2011 Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership at the Charter Day Ceremony Feb. 4. This award follows the 2010 President’s Award for Community Service, which Morris received in September.

“He epitomizes the values of the James Monroe Prize and many of the core values of our College,” said Drew Stelljes Ed.D. ’07, the director of community engagement at the College.

As a newly minted freshman at the College, Morris wasn’t sure what direction he would take.

“I had all this free time and thought, ‘What do I want to do? What am I passionate about? Where do I see myself in life?’” he said. “Growing up, I was one of the few minority students doing really well and achieving, and it was always a deep-seated issue I wanted to address one day: helping to change that dynamic. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it at the time. [I thought] mentoring could be a good way to start.”

Morris joined Project Phoenix, a group at the College that tutors and mentors middle schoolers in the Williamsburg community. Then, in the spring of his freshman year after joining the Kappa Pi chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, he began working with the fraternity’s mentoring initiatives, Distinguished Gentlemen and Rites of Passage.

Distinguished Gentlemen, a program run solely by Alpha Phi Alphas, works with male students at Berkeley Middle School, focusing on character development and other issues through a curriculum they teach and discipline through stepping.

“Sometimes the kids come in acting too cool for school, but then we as fraternity brothers come in and break out a step,” he said. “By the time we’re finished, they just say, ‘Wow, I want to be like you when I grow up.’ We model something different.”

Morris became the campus liaison to both organizations in his junior year. In 2010, the organization faced cuts in the transportation budget from the Toano Middle School, which halted the program temporarily. Morris networked throughout campus, talking with students and faculty and eventually discovered the community engagement fund. After applying for and receiving a grant, the Rites of Passage program will begin again this semester.

His mentoring work also has inspired his academic focus.

“It opened my eyes as to how salient the issue of the achievement gap is in Williamsburg,” said Morris. “I’ve taken some courses that complement my community studies minor, and that’s when I started my honors thesis.”

For his thesis, Morris is looking at the achievement gap, combining a literature review of the problem nationally with an analysis of it locally.

“We know it occurs, but how do we mitigate the effects of it and ameliorate the situation?” Morris said.
Morris is exploring the issue by interviewing teachers, faculty and principals in the Williamsburg-James City County School System about their experiences with the achievement gap and their thoughts on the most effective means of solving that problem.

“I’m hoping to bring forth some fruitful conclusions,” Morris said. “A lot of times, the principals and faculty, they’ve been through graduate school, but they don’t have time to do research to find the most cutting-edge technique to get through to these students.”

With one semester left at the College, Morris is planning to continue his work with the community. Rites of Passage begins again this semester with a mentor training session Feb. 5. Morris said he hopes eventually to create policy change in the education system, and he has applied to several graduate schools for education policy.

“It will be a pleasure to watch him make positive change as an alumnus of William and Mary,” Stelljes said.

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