By Dana Yamashita

A unique partnership, which began in January 2014 between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the National Grid Foundation, encourages local students to set their sights on the stars when it comes to their education — even during a pandemic.

The “Shoot for the Stars” program is designed to motivate students to improve their academic performance, attendance, and school behavior, and is geared toward elementary and middle school students. In the past, Rensselaer student-athletes visited Troy city schools for in-person events and the students and a guest were invited to attend Division I men’s and women’s ice hockey games at Rensselaer.

This past year took an unexpected turn with the pandemic pushing many schools to remote learning. The student-athletes from Rensselaer easily pivoted to virtual reading and mentorship programs with local students to continue this important relationship.

“The RPI reading and mentoring program is a crucial part of my school community,” said Jennifer Chatain, a fourth-grade teacher at School 14 in Troy. “The reading partners not only provide one-on-one opportunities, they also give students, who are isolated from their peers, an opportunity to just talk to someone. The RPI student-athletes work on specific reading elements when asked and always show tremendous patience when encountering uncooperative technology.”

The student-athletes act as mentors to the program participants, often initiating or encouraging interests in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I have met three times with my student [Nehemiah] and I absolutely love it,” said Liz Brady, a graduate student who captains the lacrosse team. “He is incredibly sweet and is always excited on the days we read together. He tries really hard to show his capabilities. Obviously, I think being in person would be better, but given the circumstances, I really like the setup we have.”

“The dedication of the RPI student is remarkable,” said Chatain. “I hope that someday our students will be able to meet face-to-face with their mentors, but until then, we will continue to meet virtually on a weekly basis.”

At the end of the school year, the highest performing students from the participating schools will be honored following New York State and Institute guidelines.