Originally published in The Nugget News, September 27, 2016
by: Steve Kadel

ASPIRE Mentor Julie Benson works with a student at Sisters High School. Photo by Steve Kadel

ASPIRE Mentor Julie Benson works with a student at Sisters High School. Photo by Steve Kadel

Sisters High School senior Sam Lewis knows he wants to go to college and study engineering. The question is, where?

Lewis is getting help with that decision from a local resident who has lots of engineering knowledge. Julie Benson, owner of Energyneering Solutions, Inc. at Sisters Eagle Airport, is an ASPIRE volunteer working with Lewis to help him make the best choice.

Thirty-five volunteer ASPIRE mentors meet regularly with juniors and seniors to discuss career plans, help them meet deadlines for financial aid, and discuss the nuts and bolts of moving toward college, a trade school or other post-high-school education.

Lewis, a top student, has several options. He’s interested in Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, where Benson’s daughter is enrolled. He’s also considering the University of Utah, which he will visit in early October.

Benson gave Lewis some inside knowledge about Colorado School of Mines: “They have real-deal projects funded by NASA. Undergraduates get to work on this stuff. And the labs are really nice at Mines.

“There are some engineering schools that say you’ll have a lab, but when you look in there’s one table. Mines is the engineering school in the country, along with MIT and Cal Tech.”

Benson, who is starting her fourth year as a mentor, urged Lewis to apply to his top pick as well as other schools in case he isn’t accepted by his No. 1 choice. Cost is a big factor, of course, and Benson said “there are actually quite a few (scholarships) in engineering.”

She counseled Lewis to possibly consider mechanical engineering because it offers lots of career options.

“An engineer with hands-on skills is really valuable,” Benson said.

ASPIRE coordinator Rick Kroytz said each mentor is paired with three or four students with whom they meet throughout the students’ junior and senior years. Volunteers bring a range of experience to the program. Kroytz said they include lawyers, retired school teachers and administrators, parents, fire industry personnel and more.

The program is about 10 years old at Sisters High School, and is district-funded this year, after being funded by grants in the past. The change allows Kroytz to spend a greater portion of his day on ASPIRE than


Students with an interest in the military usually are paired with mentor Brett Hoyt, now retired from the U.S. Navy. He said countries such as Germany have well-defined paths to a university educator or trade school, with students deciding which course to follow early in their secondary school


American schools don’t have such a formalized process, Hoyt said, but ASPIRE serves the purpose.

“We work with these kids and encourage them,” he said. “We are helping them through this journey.”

Hoyt, a second-year mentor, knew he wanted a military career early on. However, he said most students don’t have a clear idea of what profession they want. That’s where the ASPIRE mentors become valuable, shaping the options around each student’s interests.

Hoyt said he is enjoying the role and likes giving back to the community by volunteering.

Sisters High School students and parents have a couple of opportunities in early October to learn more about colleges – and how to pay for attending them. The Central Oregon College Fair is scheduled from 9 to 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 6, at Redmond High School. A bus will be chartered from Sisters to the fair and back for $5 per person if at least 25 students sign up.

On Tuesday, October 18, the high school will hold Financial Aid Night for seniors and their parents. It begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Student Service Center and will cover how to apply for financial aid, including federal student aid, and other topics.

Kroytz said it’s all part of doing the most possible to prepare students for their next step. ASPIRE is always looking for more volunteers, he added.

“The more mentors we have, the more successful the program can be,” Kroytz said. “It’s not so much about our knowledge as it is about our desire to help kids find success after high school.”