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Co-founders of First Mentors Mennal Zafar (left) and Ryan Afreen (right). (Photos from Mennal Zafar and Ryan Afreen)

Penn sophomores founded new initiative to tutor students newly immigrated from Bangladesh in the West Philadelphia community.

The program, called First Mentors, will offer free tutoring, college counseling, and mentorship for high school students at Moder Patshala, a nonprofit that helps newly immigrated Bangladeshi-American students adjust to the United States. The initiative was co-founded by College sophomores Ryan Afreen and Mennal Zafar and was one of eight projects funded by the Hassenfeld Foundation Social Impact Grant this year.

First Mentors will provide free standardized test preparation and hold college preparatory workshops to Moder Patshala’s students. It will also assist students with college visits and connect them with students at various universities. 

Afreen said that a large reason she and Zafar wanted to create First Mentors was that Penn does not pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes. PILOTS are financial contributions that property tax-exempt organizations voluntarily make to local governments, and would help fund schools in the School District of Philadelphia. 

The impact of coronavirus has reignited calls for Penn to pay PILOTS, and resulted in more than 1,000 Penn faculty and staff members signing a petition calling on the University to pay PILOTs in order to support the Philadelphia public school system.

“As Penn students, we felt that we were obligated to start programs at Penn that will help students because they are affected by Penn’s actions,” Afreen said. 

“A lot of resources for high school students, especially in West Philadelphia, were already lacking, and we realized that this was the best time to start a program because there are more and more resources that they are being deprived of,” she continued, “We decided that this program will be able to re-adjust and bridge the gap of equality and equity and resources for all students in West Philadelphia, and it's a free and virtual program so it's accessible to everyone."

Though First Mentors is currently only providing services to Moder Patshala students, the group is in the process of contacting other schools in West Philadelphia. Zafar added that they also have ambitions to expand the program across the city, and eventually nationwide. 

“We're starting here now, trying to see how it goes and then troubleshoot what does work and what doesn't work, before we extend this program, largely, and even beyond Philadelphia and in different states,” she said. 

This semester, the program will work virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. Both co-founders regard this as a good thing — meeting online will allow them and their mentors to tutor more students at the same time. 

First Mentors is still recruiting volunteers for the semester, and currently, only College first-year Serrane Reaz has been approved to teach.

Reaz, despite not yet arriving on Penn’s campus, decided to join First Mentors because she was already interested in helping first-generation students, but didn’t get the chance to get involved in community service groups in high school.

“It was a more personal resolution that if at the start of this new journey, where I'm gonna have these next four years to choose what I want to do, and become more involved, I definitely want to be able to do something that makes a concrete impact," she said. "And for me, this is a vehicle of change. This is a medium through which I can also fulfill my own kind of aspirations to help make an impact within the community."

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