At CCBC Catonsville, 'Pushy Moms' help college kids succeed

Jo-Ellen O'Dell, a mentor with "Pushy Moms," talks with her mentee, Cheyenne Mason.
Jo-Ellen O'Dell, a mentor with "Pushy Moms," talks with her mentee, Cheyenne Mason. (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Cheyenne Mason, 19, started learning English when she was 10 years old — she had to translate at home for her family, who speak Lenape, an indigenous language.

Since then, Mason also learned Spanish, English and is in the process of mastering Italian. She’d often be called upon at her part-time jobs to translate for customers.


“It feels good to help people in a way I actually can,” Mason said.

A student in the Honors Program at the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville campus, Mason said she wants to study languages and translation at a four-year college.


“I don’t want to pick just one language,” she said. “I love Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, but a lot of schools are ‘pick two,’ so I would pick Spanish and Italian.”

Mason signed up for “Pushy Moms,” a mentorship program offered at CCBC’s Honors Program that pairs students with a local working mom who helps guide the students during the transition from a year or two at the community college to starting at a four-year school.

The program started a couple of years ago, when Jo-Ellen O’Dell, an English teacher with Baltimore County Public Schools, heard about the idea from LaGuardia Community College in New York.

So she partnered with her friend, Jackie Scott, an English professor at CCBC, to launch a pilot in 2016. After taking diligent notes during meetings and conversations with her first mentee, O’Dell helped Scott recruit a group of Catonsville moms to mentor students — mostly by reaching out to women in the community they already knew.


“I loved the idea of mentoring students who were wanting to transfer to four-year programs,” Scott said.

Now in its second full year, the volunteer group of Pushy Moms at CCBC is mentoring 13 students and running other small-scale programs to help students.

“[We started] a closet where students can store really good stuff, so that students transferring to four-year schools who might need something for their dorm room can just go in there and get it,” Scott said. Anything in the closet is donated. The group has set up a donation fund online for unexpected expenses.

She said she has seen students take things like blankets and storage bins from the closet to use in their dorm rooms.

Natasha Cole Leonard, director of the CCBC Catonsville Honors Program, said the Pushy Moms effort has been “tremendous.”

“Primarily, we’ve been able to connect some of our mentors to students who are engaged in the transfer process during that crucial year where students can fall through the gap because the transfer process can be so onerous,” Leonard said.

Balancing act

Mason, the current student at CCBC, works three part-time jobs. She’s a secretary for an insurance company in Baltimore County, a secretary for the Honors Program at CCBC, and she works seasonally at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Besides taking classes at CCBC, she is working to improve her standardized test scores to expand her options when applying to schools and acting as a translator for her grandparents.

So when she was considering purchasing a car, she wanted to run the idea by someone not in her family — like “Ms. O’Dell,” her designated pushy mom.

“She always tells me to never hesitate to ask,” Mason said. “I told her I was thinking about moving [out] and purchasing a car, and I asked her if that would be a good decision. She told me it wouldn’t be preferable because with those new responsibilities come new bills, and that would mean new hours to work, which means less time for school.”

CCBC Catonsville partners with Hungry Harvest for campus reduced-price produce program for students, faculty and staff.

Mason said working with O’Dell gives her an opportunity to gain perspectives from a source to whom she is not related.

“I know what my family wants me to do, but it’s kind of like, [well], what I want to do,” Mason said. “It’s a chance to be selfish, but in a good way.”

O’Dell said she felt like her “constant texting” with Mason helped the student make some key decisions.

“We did have some clarifying conversations, you know, where she was explaining some of the options she was considering. I think I was able to give her some ideas about how her decisions might impact her future in college,” O’Dell said.

Mason said she and O’Dell also have discussed retaking standardized tests, like the SAT, to raise her scores. She said O’Dell also encouraged her to consider some schools outside of Maryland, as that might increase her chances of admission.

“It’s been good. We have a game plan of what I need to do soon,” Mason said.

Growing up

O’Dell’s first mentee, Kristan German, 23, is in her senior year at Providence College in Rhode Island. She and O’Dell “text regularly,” she said.

“If I’m having any issues, I can just text her,” German said. O’Dell helped German narrow a list of schools to consider, assisted with the application process and has helped her with some of the tasks that come with moving out and living away from home for the first time — like knowing where to purchase a shower caddy, or making sure there are grocery stores nearby.

“It played a huge part in me figuring out my future,” said German, a history major. “I didn’t know anything about the college process. So when I met Ms. Jackie and Ms. Jo Ellen, it helped me out a lot.”

O’Dell credits her knack for mentoring college students as they transition schools to the fact that she’s a mother of two herself, and not just a “pushy mom.”

“I found it to be very rewarding, because as a mom you build up all of this experience,” O’Dell said. “You learn the hard way from your first child.”

As an example, O’Dell said she looked at a list her daughter made of dorm room necessities to share with students as they move from a community college setting to a campus. She’s been able to help her mentees navigate the world of applying for financial aid because she’s guided her children — one a recent graduate and one studying at Barnard College — through the process.

“Walking down that road again, not with your own child but with a young adult who is in need of some guidance, is just, it just warms your heart,” O’Dell said. “They’ve been so grateful and they’ve had such good questions, and to be able to answer those questions and have somebody actually listen to your answers and take your advice is very satisfying. You feel like you’re giving something back to the community.”

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