Football Teammates Join Together to Launch High School Mentoring Program
Courtesy: Columbia University Athletics

When Columbia junior Andrew Heinrich was a high school student at the Dalton School in Manhattan, he took a philosophy class surrounding 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his views on education.  Inspired by Rousseau's view that tailors education to an individual and sees education as a developmental, lifelong experience, Heinrich launched a non-profit organization earlier this year that he named Project Rousseau.

Project Rousseau is a one-to-one mentoring program for underprivileged high school students. Heinrich and his team match high school students with college students who are in the same stage of their respective educations.  High school freshmen are paired with college freshmen, high school sophomores are paired with college sophomores, and so on, throughout his or her entire high school career. Currently, Project Rousseau mentors in eight states.

With the help of some of his Columbia Football teammates, Heinrich has quickly established a large-scale organization that is making an impact with a number of high school students.  Columbia junior Eric Walker, who hails from Arlington, Texas, outside of Dallas, teamed with Heinrich to mentor a student at Central Park East High School in Manhattan last spring.  Earlier this fall, Walker helped pair a friend from the University of Texas-Arlington with a local high school student in his hometown.

"When Andrew first approached me about Project Rousseau, I was immediately interested," said Walker.  "I knew a lot of smart guys in high school who ended up falling off the right path.  If I could somehow bring a mentoring program to our high school, we could help someone in a similar situation do well in the future."

Walker and sophomore Zach Olinger are currently paired up with two high school students from Central Park East High School who also play football.  Sharing similar interests and having someone that a high schooler can look up to are key aspects of the program, according to Walker.

"It's a great experience because my mentee, Mike, is getting the chance to be with someone outside of school, someone who he might be able to relate to," Walker said.  Mike is currently a junior defensive lineman on the Central Park East football team who hopes to play college football.

Olinger also got involved with Project Rousseau in its early stages.  He approached Heinrich when he learned of the organization's start.  "Any time you can get involved in community outreach, it makes you a more well-rounded person, I think," said the sophomore linebacker who was a peer mentor at Spain Park High School in Alabama.  Olinger teams with another high school footballer, Kelvin, who also competes on the track team at Central Park East. "We talk about sports, I see how he's doing with homework and help with studying for tests. I look at it more of being a helping friend rather than a tutor," Olinger explained. 

When one hears the Columbia players discuss their involvement with Project Rousseau, it's easy to hear the enjoyment that they receive from spending some time away from campus each week while helping make a difference, however small or big, in the lives of a younger person.  It is that idea that spurred Heinrich to launch Project Rousseau.

"I realized how valuable one-on-one relationships were when I was in high school," Heinrich explained.  "When I explained what I thought Project Rousseau was all about to my teammates, it was instantly clear that this was something that we should do."

Heinrich proposed Project Rousseau's mission and vision to a colleague at Central Park East High School, he created the groundwork to begin the mentor-mentee relationship with the help of teachers and counselors at the high school. At Central Park East last winter, Heinrich served as a mentor and met Shatovia Irvings, currently a freshman at Virginia Union University who graduated from Central Park East High School in June 2011.  Heinrich met Irvings as she was struggling academically during her senior year and was concerned about being accepted to college.

"When I applied to Project Rousseau and had Andrew as a mentor, he wasn't only there for me academically but there for me personally.  I might not have graduated from high school if not for him," Irvings said.  With Heinrich as a mentor, her grades improved to a B+ average at the end of her senior year and she was chosen to give the student speech at the Central Park East graduation ceremony in June.

Pursuing a biology major at Virginia Union, Irvings also has accepted the role of chapter president at the University and will help mentor a high school student in the Richmond area in the spring of 2012.

It is gratifying for Heinrich and the other members of Columbia's football team to already see their mentoring efforts produce tangible results.  The current Lions are hoping to establish a growing network not only across the country but within the football team, helping carry on the legacy of Project Rousseau long after the original mentors graduate from Columbia.

by Pete McHugh

This story originally appeared in the September 24 edition of the Columbia football game day program.