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Connecting

 
  Berklee President Roger Brown (right) chats with students at a gathering for mentors and students.
  photos by Adam Olenn

Two years ago, the college instituted the Community Mentor Program to match students with well-established, nonmusic professionals eager to share their expertise and guidance with these students. The program offers students a perspective on life outside Berklee's music community and gives mentors a look at the Berklee experience from the student's point of view. At a November gathering at the Belmont, MA, home of volunteer program coordinator Jane Levitt, it was apparent from the lively interactions between these new, cross-generational friends that the program has enriched the lives of mentors and mentees.

Berklee's mentors include doctors, lawyers, bankers, and businessmen who are also members of the board of trustees, the president's advisory council, alumni parents, and other college supporters. The 28 participating students come from states, countries, and socioeconomic backgrounds different from those of their mentors. They meet for career advice and to celebrate holidays in a family setting, a practice that's been helpful to students far from home. Because one-third of program participants are international students, these associations offer a deeper immersion in American culture that helps acclimate and welcome them.

The mentorship program was designed with ample flexibility. Together with Levitt, Joanne Whitaker, the board liaison for Berklee President Roger Brown's office, matches students with their mentors. Then relationships grow organically. Some relationships become more social than professional, forging bonds between students and mentor families. Other mentorships are career oriented, where mentors take an active role in a student's professional development. These mentors advise students and often employ their own professional networks to help boost a student's career to the next level.

Student program participants are generally freshmen and sophomores who maintain a minimum GPA of 2.5. They are encouraged to meet their mentors regularly and invite them to performances. Mentors also attend two annual events where program participants come together to share experiences. The recent dinner gathering at Levitt's home was such an event. In his remarks, President Brown emphasized the importance of the lessons to be learned from the mentorship program. "Keep your appointments," Brown counseled the students. "If you say you're going to be somewhere, make sure you show up. Reliability is a trait you're going to need if you're going to have a successful career."

 
Neara Russell and Greg Winter  

Greg Winter serves as a mentor to songwriter and presidential scholar Neara Russell. Regarding his work with the young Wisconsin native, Winter says, "I just helped pull out her vision, she's doing all the work." But Russell says that Winter's role is larger than her mentor lets on. "He's amazing," Russell says. "He had a business plan together for me in, like, five minutes, and he's got a lot of great ideas for how I can break through to the next level."

Winter's ideas include laying out deadlines for releasing a CD and contracting with a management company. He has also contacted professionals in the entertainment industry on Russell's behalf. He hopes to see Russell in an opening spot on a national tour next summer.

Other mentorships are more social in nature. Matt Epstein and his wife, Deborah Hiatt, have enjoyed their second year with Alexis Juliard, a vocal performance student from Paris, France. The couple has two teenage children who admire Juliard, and the Berklee student is a frequent dinner guest at the Epstein-Hiatt home. Last March, Juliard returned the favor by meeting the family at a favorite restaurant in Paris.

"I have to take it on faith that he's a musician," Hiatt jokes. "I've never even heard him hum a bar!" With a mentors' concert planned for April 2009, Hiatt will soon get her chance to see and hear his talent for herself.