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Rylee Brower: The Impact of One Mentor

June 3, 2015

Rylee Brower is a sophomore from Holland, Michigan, majoring in psychology and human development and family studies in the College of Social Science. She is a member of the Social Science Scholars Program.

As a junior or senior in high school, everything becomes centered on college: where to go, AP credits, costs, recommendation letters, programs and scholarships. But the million-dollar question, the one at the heart of every conversation, is simply “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”

Wow. If that’s not a mind-blowing question, I don’t know what is. For some of us, it’s not an issue. Maybe you’ve known since you were 10 that you wanted to be a doctor. But for others, it’s a head-scratcher, an elusive goal — tangible, but just a little too far off yet.

I was one of those kids who knew immediately what I thought I wanted. I was going to be a psychologist of some variety. In my soul-searching for universities with great programs, I needed to narrow down what kind of psychologist I’d like to be; it turned out to be one with a focus in the criminal justice system.

I was so excited to have my life figured out, at least in terms of my career. But when I took my first class in the department, it just felt wrong. I’d also done some volunteering back home with an organization that works closely with young adults with special needs, and I really missed what I’d been doing there. So, armed with the knowledge that criminal justice wasn’t for me and little else, I hung my head and let fear of the unknown overtake me.

However, my knight in shining armor wasn’t long in coming. Thanks to the wide array of intelligent, driven, experienced people who have participated in the Social Science Scholars Program, I met a woman who was able to give me a renewed sense of direction.

Every other class period of the program is filled with guest speakers of expertise in their subject, and this particular session brought me exactly what I needed to hear. Ellen Cokinos came in one day to speak about working in non-profit organizations, bringing her vast knowledge of the industry.

Ellen Cokinos completed a bachelor’s degree with concentrations in criminal justice and psychology at Michigan State and followed it with a master’s in social work. She then embarked on a career serving at-risk children. As a foster care caseworker for abused children in Michigan, Ellen identified many flaws in the existing system. The Children’s Protective Services Agency swiftly promoted her to positions in which she could make a difference on a large scale. Her passion and wisdom paid dividends.

In Texas, where she had moved, Ellen helped bring about significant improvements in how cases of sexual abuse are handled by the civil and criminal court systems. Reflecting on Ellen’s many achievements on behalf of abused children, in 1998 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then First Lady of the United States, described her as “a force of nature” who “uses her talents and energy on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

Subsequently, Ellen opened her own non-profit in Texas. Extremely skilled in fundraising, she became a consultant for other non-profits. Not least because she only works with organizations about whose causes she cares deeply, Ellen has continued to make an enormously positive difference.

In class, Ellen spent some time discussing with us possibilities in the non-profit industry and told us how almost any career has a parallel in the not-for-profit sector. She went over individual options with students and walked us through her path and highlighted how she has been able to fashion a career that is both emotionally and financially rewarding. As she was presenting, I felt something click.

All of the confusion lifted as I realized that it was possible to have a very good life while serving a community, and I knew this was something I wanted to pursue. After hearing her speak, I sent Ellen a long email asking for her guidance — possible options, appropriate majors and areas in which I might work.

She took the time to respond in detail about opportunities, internships and majors for me to look into. I acted upon her suggestion to consider human development and family studies as an additional major to psychology and met with an advisor. When I left the advising appointment, I felt so validated in my decision, and completely at peace with the advice and wise words Ellen had given me.

I quickly emailed her again, thanking her for the time she had committed to me, and she again responded in the most encouraging way: excited for my goals and letting me know she’d be there if I needed anything.

Many other students in the program have similar stories to share about mentors they’ve met through the Social Science Scholars Program. The people we’ve been introduced to are all willing to help out, provide opportunities and generally support our academic careers and lives beyond the classroom. Being given a support system from experts at MSU and beyond is an incredible feeling; one that has opened many doors for the future and will impact lives for years to come.

Reprinted with permission from the College of Social Science