Counseling group honors grad student for research, practice

MelanieVarneyMelanie Varney, pursuing her master’s and specialist degrees in mental health counseling at UF’s College of Education, has received the Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling’s (AARC) 2013 Master’s Exemplary Research and Practice Award. The award recognizes the contributions a master’s student has made in scholarship and service that align with the group’s mission. 

Varney’s research focuses on multicultural issues in counseling, especially cultural identity development. She has been involved in the Pediatric Counseling Research Team at the College of Education and has studied educational issues affecting historically underperforming minority students. 

She has made two research presentations at the AARC conference and the American Counseling Association conference. Varney was the lead presenter at the ACA’s conference last year, a rare distinction for a master’s student. Varney has been invited to return to the ACA conference again as a co-presenter for an educational session discussing the trends in African American counseling literature that have been published in the past 20 years.

Varney has also excelled in her clinical experiences. She is currently completing her internship at the UF Counseling and Wellness Center. Previously, she was a counseling practicum counselor at the PACE Center for Girls, a local non-residential delinquency prevention program for young females. Varney is also currently employed as a crisis intervention consultant for UF’s Department of Housing and Resident Education.


UF, historically black colleges and universities launching statewide mentoring for at-risk minority youth

Cheryl Williams and Michael Bowie, the prime drivers behind the recent launch of a statewide mentoring program for at-risk minority youth.

Cheryl Williams and Michael Bowie, the prime drivers behind the recent launch of a statewide mentoring program for at-risk minority youth.

Research has shown that minority youth in Florida are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to encounter law enforcement officials compared to their white peers.

University of Florida education researchers want to reverse that trend through a new program that will provide 150 at-risk minority students, particularly young black males, with role model mentors and other supportive services as a way to increase the students’ chances of academic and social success.

Collaborating in the effort are the UF College of Education, historically black colleges and universities in Florida, state legislators including senators Christopher Smith and Dwight Bullard and Representatives Perry Thurston and Dwayne Taylor, and community organizations including Partnership for Strong Families and 21st Century Research & Evaluations, Inc. 

“We need to provide children with viable options that will lead them towards a successful life,” said Cheryl Williams, the College of Education’s community and government liaison, who worked with Florida legislators to secure funding for the mentoring project. “Education is a key component of that success.”

With $619,000 funded by the Florida Legislature, the Situational Environmental Circumstances Mentoring Program (SEC) will match student mentors at the historically black colleges and universities in Florida with minority male elementary school students. The mentor-mentee pairs will share similar challenging backgrounds such as low socioeconomic home environments, delinquency records and poor academic achievement.

“It makes good sense to start at the elementary level because we have the opportunity to intervene in a trajectory that often leads to the prison pipeline,” Williams said. “From an early age, we can change their outlook and impact on our global society.”

The high school graduation rate for black males in Florida is about 47 percent, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s 2012 “Urgency of Now” report. Government data also shows that black males constitute 47 percent of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and 46 percent of the Department of Corrections’ incarcerated populations.

To reverse this trend, the SEC model is rooted in the idea that “high-risk youth have various situational and environmental circumstances that impact their life choices and opportunities for success,” said Randy Nelson, the founder of 21st Century Research & Evaluations, Inc., a Tallahassee-based human services firm, and the lead developer of the SEC model.

“The traditional model of attempting to correct anti-social behavior by adjusting these kids’ attitudes and sending them back into an environment that breeds negative behaviors has not worked,” Nelson said. “We need to teach them skills that will allow them to navigate and negotiate within these environments by showing them how to make good decisions, like choosing a solid education and recognizing what kind of people can lead them down the wrong path.”

This is why the mentoring initiative pairs these underserved children with relatable mentors whose positive behavior they can emulate. 

The mentors for the UF-led project will be chosen from the University of Florida, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, and Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. Each institution will select and train between eight and 10 mentors, who will receive monthly stipends. After training, each mentor will be matched with three or four at-risk children—or 30 total – from local low-performing elementary schools.

The mentors will meet with each of their mentees four times a month, with two of those being one-on-one. Every other month, SEC leaders will host a workshop on important motivation-building topics, including self-esteem, parent and family issues, anger management, peer pressure, conflict resolution, understanding diversity and goal-setting. After each workshop, the elementary students will have discussions with their college mentors about what they learned.

“What makes this so difficult is that these are elementary school kids and we’re going to have to be much more interactive and simplistic in the way that we present this information to them,” said Michael Bowie, the director and principal Investigator of the state-funded project. Bowie also directs the Office for Recruitment, Retention and Multicultural Affairs at UF’s College of Education.

UF’s aim to help underserved elementary school students is a first for the SEC model, which has been implemented in the past within Florida middle and high schools.

Samuel Johnson, a fourth-year student at FAMU, was a mentor for one of the first SEC programs last year. He mentored four high school students in Tallahassee, and he will be a mentor for the UF-led program as well.

“These kids have had hard lives, but somebody has to tell them things like that they don’t have to own a handgun or they don’t have to start drinking when they’re 12 years old,” Johnson said. “If they want to be a doctor or something, they can. They just need to put effort into it.”

Research tracking the SEC program’s past effectiveness, at the middle and high school grade levels, shows an overall improvement in the youths’ academic performance and attendance and marked reductions in disruptive behavior at school.   

When the UF-led project begins in September, the research team will also evaluate the program’s impact on the elementary school mentees. Bowie said if the mentoring project succeeds with the elementary students, the SEC team will seek funding to continue tracking the mentored youth through the K-12 system and college.


Writer: Alexa Lopez, news and communications, UF College of Education;; 352-273-4449
Media Relations: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education;; 352-273-4137
Source: Michael Bowie