Criminal Justice Students Create Mentorship Program with Outside In School for Experiential Education

Before becoming a full-time instructor in Seton Hill's Criminal Justice Program, Deborah Slates-Ciocco spent 30 years working as a juvenile probation officer for the Westmoreland County Courts. 

“l liked working with the court-ordered youth,” she says, “and I like working with the (Seton Hill) students, so I thought - why not get them together?”

So she called up her old friend and colleague, Skip Eicher. Skip is the chief development officer at the Outside In School of Experiential Education. Located in Bolivar, Pa. (just 40 mins. from the Hill), Outside In provides a variety of support services for youth and families. One of the biggest is a residential school for youthful first-time offenders. These young males are generally between the ages of 13 -18. 

“We wanted to come up with something that was beneficial for both our kids and the Seton Hill students,” Skip says. ”After about a half-hour conversation, we landed on having our young men come up to Seton Hill to take a tour, meet some students, meet a professor, and generally get a snapshot view of what the college experience was like.”

“At that time,” he adds, “I had no idea just how well that would work out.”

Restorative Justice

Deborah pitched the idea that she and Skip had come up with to the 15 students in her spring 2021 Restorative Justice course.

“You all knew, growing up, that college was at least a possibility,” she told them. “There are a lot of people who don’t grow up that way.”

She explained the rough parameters of the project and asked if anyone would be willing to work with her on making it part of their coursework for that term.

“They were on board right away,” she says. “I only needed three student leaders; I immediately got five volunteers.”

The project they settled on would involve a month of training for the Seton Hill students. Then, a small group of students from Outside In would come to Seton Hill and spend time with the class for two hours weekly throughout March. The program would end with a small graduation ceremony where the Outside In students would each receive a certificate for completing the mentoring sessions.

“Prior to doing our partnership,” student leader Corey Negley says. “I had no experience with any kind of juvenile corrections. I was frankly kind of terrified.”

Corey wasn’t the only one with concerns. During the mentorship training process, many of the Seton Hill students admitted that they felt some anxiety about interacting with the Outside In students. 

“And then,” Deborah said, “we had this moment where they looked at me and said - wait, will they be uncomfortable about coming here? I had to laugh. ‘You bet they are,’ I told them.”

The Seton Hill students worked together to create a Google document that contained a photo and a short bio of everyone in their class. Then they sent it to Skip to share with the young men from Outside In. They hoped it would serve as an introduction, and make the first trip to Seton Hill’s campus easier.

“They came up with this on their own,” Deborah says. “I was so proud of them.”

Optimism & Kindness

In early March, five young men from Outside In, accompanied by staff members, arrived at Seton Hill for their first mentoring session.

“We chose students that were either 17 or 18 that had an interest in possibly attending college someday,” Skip says. “We also chose students who were doing well in their program that we knew would be able to handle themselves appropriately while on the campus.” 

As pandemic policies restricted the use of indoor spaces on campus, the group spent most of its time together outside on the Quad or in the McKenna Center. The Seton Hill students strove to give the young men from Outside In as close to a real college experience as possible. They spent class time together, led the young men on a campus tour, played lawn games and basketball, and ate together.

"Throughout this, I found I wanted more, not only for the Seton Hill students, but for the youth as well.”

“When the youths actually came to campus for the first time,” Corey says. “I was extremely surprised... They all seemed to fit in well here, mingling and socializing with our class as if they were fellow students.”

“At first,” says Seton Hill criminal justice major Trinity Wennberg, “I was as nervous as the youth were. As the weeks went on, we got closer and closer as a group. Throughout this, I found I wanted more, not only for the Seton Hill students, but for the youth as well.”

At the end of each visit, everyone sat down in a “big circle” to talk. For the first few sessions, Seton Hill students and faculty answered questions about themselves and their college experiences. On the last day, the young men from Outside In offered to answer questions about themselves. 

“They gave us insight into what personal growth really is,” says Riley O’Mara, a Seton Hill wrestler and criminal justice major who served as one of the team leaders. “The youth hit home for me with their optimism and kindness through their questions and personal stories.”

Life to the Fullest

“[The Outside In] mission statement is ‘life to the fullest’, ” says Trinity. “I believe that is the truest statement a rehabilitation center can have. It gives the youth a chance that they deserve.”

“Our students very much enjoyed the whole experience,” Skip says. “Each of them expressed gratitude for being able to participate in the process. Overall, we accomplished our goal of having our kids get to experience a small piece of college life.  By all accounts, everything went extremely well.”

So well, in fact, that a judge from the other side of the state heard about it. He called Deborah to find out more. To help answer questions and get the word out, the Restorative Justice class is writing an article for the newsletter of the Juvenile Court Judges Commission. They are also creating an iMovie about the experience.

“Criminal justice can seem like a world full of broken people,” Riley says. “The ability to offer compassion to those who may lose sight of it at times is so rewarding. The Criminal Justice major and the Outside In program have reignited my desire to protect and serve.”

Deborah plans to make this project part of her Restorative Justice course every spring. She’s in discussions with another human services organization about a similar project that could become part of her fall Juvenile Delinquency course.

“These youth showed me that there are others in the world that will always have different experiences,” Trinity says. “And yet, I was able to relate to the youth in several different ways. They taught me that perseverance is strong and that they will not give up. That they want to have better lives for themselves and their families. They showed me that whatever situation you are in, there is something better for you. This is what I personally held close to my heart after we parted ways.” 

“The biggest positive aspect of the mentorship program was just being able to see the amount of growth each of the kids experienced,” Corey said. “Just by meeting them a few times, it seemed that we were all able to make a positive influence in their lives. Being able to turn someone’s life around? That’s priceless.”

Marketing Communication Intern Jessica McClelland assisted with this story.