Margot is a lusophile + hispanophile + bibliophile.
Jessie Pitsillides is an 18-year-old prospective Harvard student, and the founder of MentorJr, an organisation focused on fixing inequality within the education system. Here, she talks about the origins of the organisation, and where she sees it going next.
Margot: Today, I'm here with Jessie. She is the founder of Mentor Jr., which she is going to tell us a little bit more about. It's a volunteer tutoring service that has grown exponentially over the COVID period and it's a really excellent service and has been a really wonderful tool for so many people who've needed it throughout the last year. Jessie, it would be great to hear about the origins of Mentor Jr, and what led you to create it.
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Jessie: Yeah, of course. I've always been someone who has loved learning and sharing about the subjects that I love. So, tutoring felt like the natural step for me. I was in Lower Six, and I really wanted to find a way to give back. I reached out to a bunch of local primary schools, and there was one in particular in Royal Oak that I had a connection with, because I used to do gymnastics and I had lots of friends and little siblings that went there. And so I grabbed a couple of my friends and we'd go there every week and tutor the kids at that school. It was going really well: it was your classic little tutoring group.
But then, COVID hit. So I thought that instead of pausing it completely and destroying all the progress that we've made, I would move the whole initiative online. And it worked really well. I mean, it was quite easy: ten tutors, fifteen children. But then, you know, as word got around, a lot more tutors wanted to join, a lot more kids needed help; because of the pandemic, many children were out of school, so many parents were lost as to what to do with online learning. It's this whole new world of parents having to teach fractions and decimals, and we wanted to help.
As horrible as it was, it was a perfect storm for this initiative to thrive in the COVID period. So now, it's grown to the point where we can offer over 350 hours of free tutoring to children from all around the world. We have tutees in countries like Bulgaria and Cyprus and the Philippines, and it's just been absolutely amazing watching it grow and meeting new people and parents. And right now, we're at the stage where I've got a lovely team that is hopefully going to help me from September to grow the initiative. And one of our goals is to raise money to fund DBS checks for our tutors. So that if anyone needs funding for that £24 for DBS check, that can absolutely be funded so that anyone can be a tutor. And secondly, to build an app so that it can reach as many people as it can as safely as possible. And I think one of the initiatives that I look up to most is Khan Academy. And what they do is they kind of take the tutor out of tutoring, and we're trying to put the tutor back in.
It's a really exciting period for us and I can't wait to see it grow.
Margot: That's amazing. And it will be interesting to hear kind of looking back to where you guys started off. What is it that surprised you most? Obviously, you never could have predicted COVID coming, but is there anything else that's really surprised you in developing this initiative?
Jessie: Yeah. I think one of the things that surprised me most in a really positive way is just the readiness of people to give back. And when I just started and I made a little logo on Word: Mentor Jr., with a little green circle. And I had a dad who was a designer and he designed my logo for me because we were giving his son free tutoring, which was wonderful. I also had a client whose mum was a lawyer. She helped me draft up our safeguarding policies and procedures. So I think one of the things that surprised me was just how lovely people are and how in such a time of crisis, people are so willing to give back, which was wonderful.
Margot: Yes, absolutely. It's so beautiful hearing that while you were offering teaching to their children, they were giving back to you; it's a really lovely cycle. It kind of shows how people can help each other to create something really wonderful. Is that what's been the most rewarding part of this whole initiative? Or would you say that there's something else that you would see as the most rewarding?
Jessie: I think it's those examples of giving back, even just smaller kind of testimonials from parents, just hearing that their son stood up in class for the first time in months. Little things like that, passing interviews, and finally kind of getting back into sports. I think one of the best things about mentors here is that all of our tutors are young. So they've only recently been through those same trials and tribulations as their tutees and mentees, and I think that it's not forgetting that it's a role that's equally pastoral as it is academic. And so the bonds that are built between tutors and tutees are so lovely. And oftentimes, our tutors kind of come on board expecting that they're going to stay for three, four months, just for, I don't know, whatever reasons or motivations they might have, and they end up staying for a lot longer just because they build real bonds with their mentees.
Margot: Yes, absolutely. That must be really lovely to see. Naturally, this is something that relies heavily on technology. Do you think that technology is something that ultimately has helped or hindered education? And where do you think it can take education in the future?
Jessie: I think, ultimately, it has helped massively. I think, of course, it should be a goal and it should be one of the priorities of the government and the education department to provide technology to kids who don't have access to it. And I know there are some wonderful charities out there, like ReadyTechGo, that I'm hoping to reach out to, and that's kind of also one of our wider goals, as well as the app and the DBS checks to ultimately provide devices to kids so they can access these wonderful free resources. And I think that there are so many brilliant people out there that put out brilliant content that's accessible to everyone. And I think that it's absolutely revolutionized education and the EdTech space is a really interesting place to be right now. And particularly, after COVID, I think so many professors as well have become really savvy with their tech. So I'm excited to see whether, you know, they end up putting stuff out there. I know Yale published their philosophy courses, which is awesome. It's just on YouTube for free for anyone to listen to. And I think that it's really making the most of the free content out there. It's an exciting time for it.
Margot: Absolutely. With something like tutoring, where you're really disrupting a space that is traditionally associated with elitism and quite high costs, so how have you found being a company that's very different from a lot of other tutoring initiatives?
Jessie: For me, Mentor Jr. is all about leveling out the educational playing field. I've been so fortunate throughout my education to have wonderful mentors. I mean, I'm an only child, so I've been taught to kind of make the most of every relationship that I've been afforded, which is great, but I think everyone, every child should be allowed the benefits of a great education. And it's every child that can benefit from a tutor, whether they're super ahead in class and they need extra enrichment, or whether they’re those kids in the middle that sometimes very sadly, tend to get forgotten. And it's not for any fault of the teacher. They think teachers do some of the most profound and impactful work in today's society. But it's often due to just cutbacks in education that means that there just isn't time or resources, and I really hope that Mentor Jr. is in some small way, addressing that. I'm trying to give every child that equality of opportunity to just be the best selves that they can be.
Margot: That's really inspiring to hear. And where do you see it moving in the future?
Jessie: Well, I really hope that Mentor Jr. can just help every child out there. I hope that we can provide devices to kids in other countries that don't have access to this technology. I hope that we can grow communities to that because currently, we have just one group of tutors that are helping these kids in all these different countries, but ideally, it would be someone well versed in, for example, the Cypriot education system instead of it being the best guess from a Brit. I really hope to just see those numbers rising, because I think that it's so wonderful that being online, it's so much easier to reach people that you would have never reached before.
Margot: Completely. And learn things you never would have learned before. And it's just such an amazing thing to see. This is so interesting to hear and I wish you all the best of luck at Mentor Jr - It's going to be amazing to see how it grows and helps people along its journey! So thank you so much.
Jessie: Thank you!