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Mentor Story: Remembering Your Why

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Kira Allen and Itaevia Curry-Chisolm met through the BOOST Program at Duke University. At that time, Kira was a high schooler who had been a BOOST Scholar before the program’s hiatus and had returned to serve as a near-peer mentor. Kira’s mom convinced her to confide in Doug Coleman, one of the program’s leaders, about her troubles with AP Chemistry. Ever the advocate, Doug put out a call to BOOST Coaches asking if anyone would be willing to tutor her. Coach Itaevia immediately volunteered and set into motion a relationship that still blossoms to this day. 

The two hit it off almost immediately. Itaevia remembers Kira as a spunky, quick-witted teenager with tons of confidence and a commitment to uplift others. For Kira, Itaevia was a relatable big sister whose drive and ambition were both inspiring and validating. Itaevia was double majoring in Biology and Family & Consumer Sciences while conducting research at the Environmental Protection Agency in conjunction with her full scholarship at North Carolina Central University. She overloaded every semester and graduated summa cum laude with honors in both degrees. Now, as Itaevia pursues an MD/Ph.D. at UConn, she and Kira still remain close. 

“I didn’t have a Black female college student telling me I could do exactly what I wanted to do. If I could be in that position for someone else and show them what’s possible by walking the walk, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Whereas some may have shied away from adding mentorship to an already-full plate, Itaevia welcomed the opportunity, even with multiple concurrent responsibilities. She sees mentorship as a serious and sacred agreement. “It’s an unofficial contract between you and someone you see potential in,” she says. “It’s a commitment to do anything in your power to help them.” She recognizes how special it is to be mentored by someone with whom one identifies and holds her own commitment with special reverence. “I didn’t have a Black female college student telling me I could do exactly what I wanted to do,” she shared. “If I could be in that position for someone else and show them what’s possible by walking the walk, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Kira and Itaevia began their work together with ritualistic meetings at the mall. They quickly discovered many shared interests ranging from science to makeup. The pair would meet at Panera to do homework and study, but not without leaving space to roam Sephora and chat about life. In doing so, they created a genuine bond that underpinned their mentor relationship and inspired a sense of trust and ease. Kira would share challenges she was facing like applying to college or navigating social pressures. Itaevia would listen intently and offer reflections from her own experiences before drilling down and saying, “Let’s make a plan.” 

Those early conversations flowed seamlessly, touching on everything from what was happening at school to healing from past traumas. Itaevia remembers their meetings as “a safe space to talk and commune” and Kira came to rely on Itaevia as an invaluable sounding board. Kira felt comfortable talking to Itaevia about anything, especially the tough stuff. “As Black women, the way we handle our trauma is a little different from everyone else,” Kira explains. “A lot of times we’re still trying to be Superwoman and care for others when we haven’t taken care of ourselves first. Itaevia always reminds me to take care of myself. Things like that make me appreciate her.” 

Itaevia offered tangible support in helping Kira reach her goals beyond content mastery. She shared connections with strategic contacts and demystified certain systems and processes, all while reminding Kira to stay true to herself and remember her “why”. “She’d say, ‘Make sure that what you’re doing is what you want to do because it’s going to be your life,’” Kira recalls. “Now I’m out here telling other people the same stuff.”

“A lot of times we’re still trying to be Superwoman and care for others when we haven’t taken care of ourselves first. Itaevia always reminds me to take care of myself. Things like that make me appreciate her.” 

Kira says that when your mentor is a double major, you learn a lot just by watching them and hearing them explain the choices they’re making. “The things Itaevia strives for in life inspire me to keep going and I try to model my work ethic around what I see her doing.” 

The value of this relationship is felt on both sides. “Kira helped me further find and define my voice,” says Itaevia. “She helped me figure out the woman I wanted to be. I always wanted somebody who I felt I needed in life and she gave me the opportunity to be that for somebody else, to see what it was like and whether I was up for the task.” Though Itaevia sometimes worried whether she was “doing it right” or being the best mentor she could be, she says, “Kira saw me. She saw how hard I was trying and she made me feel good about it.”

The relationship between these two women is already creating ripple effects. Kira has volunteered with high schoolers to provide homework assistance and help students conceptualize “their bigger picture”. She’s also tutored student-athletes and advised them on time management and long-term planning. Now, she’s studying chemical engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and uses her platform as Vice President of the Society of Women Engineers to cultivate community partnerships geared toward mentorship. She even started a mentorship program and an allies committee. 

“Everything I’ve implemented in my life is me working to create a BOOST environment in some way,” says Kira. In fact, her dream is to one day retire and run BOOST or an organization like it. “I want to stay in my industry long enough to get experience, build networks and contacts, and then run an organization where I’m pipelining the girls behind me into these companies, startups, or entrepreneurial fields,” she says. She shared that vision with Itaevia years ago, when Itaevia was learning about grant management as an intern at Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and the two brainstormed strategies to make Kira’s vision happen. Kira says that when she’s struggling in her classes, that vision—and her relationship with Itaevia—are part of the ‘why’ that keeps her persistent. “If it hadn’t been for Itaevia, I don’t know how I would have ended up viewing myself and what I’m capable of,” she says. “I wouldn’t believe in myself the way I do or pursue the things I did.” 

Similarly, Kira and mentees like her are a big part of Itaevia’s “why”. “I met Kira before she was applying to college and now she’s about to graduate,” she says. “I know she’s going on to experience another level of life and I want her to always feel free to pick up the phone and call so she can get through whatever she needs to get through with grace and confidence.” Itaevia says that her relationship with Kira has deepened her appreciation of her own mentors. “When I think about my mentors—Senior Program Officer Alfred Mays, Dr. Gail Hollowell, Dr. Nina Smith,  Doug Coleman, Mrs. Treva Fitts, Dr. Timothy Shafer,  and Dr. Stefanie Sarantopoulos. Knowing that I can be that sort of support for Kira makes me believe in my network even more. There have been people throughout different stages of my life who wanted me to succeed and I know that it’s genuine. There doesn’t have to be a motive attached to mentorship. You can genuinely want to see somebody win and encourage and empower them on that journey.” 

Itaevia says that her commitment to mentorship hasn’t always been understood, but that hasn’t lessened her tenacity. “A lot of faculty didn’t understand why I would dedicate so much time to mentorship. Friends too. They didn’t get why I’d give up my one free Saturday to spend it with kids instead of going to the game.” For those people and others who are hesitant about becoming mentors, Itaevia has this advice: “There’s going to be a day when you’re in lab or clinic and you’re angry and exhausted and all you can think about is me me me; Why is all of this happening to me? But then you’ll take a split second, think about somebody else, and realize No, it’s not just about me. It’s about everybody that I can directly and indirectly impact.” 

For more information on the BOOST Program at Duke University, visit BOOST’s website

Click here to connect with Itaevia. 

Click here to connect with Kira.

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