Mentors in Music

A program supported by an O’Hanian-Szostak Fellow expands musical education in Waterville schools

Waterville student Annabelle Stanton, an IDEAs in Music mentee, performs with Jackie Legutko '24, her musical mentor, during the Musical Moments Concert at Greene Block + Studios. Brendon Wilkins, director of the Jazz Band and Wind Ensemble, the Office for Civic Engagement, and Colby students worked together to support a music partnership with students from Waterville schools.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Séan Alonzo Harris
June 25, 2024

Naji Yerokun ’26 learned to play the violin at a young age growing up in Texas because he had access to affordable instruments and excellent instruction. In high school, he fell passionately in love with the cello.

“It’s a beautiful instrument with a magnificent sound,” he said. “I knew it was the instrument for me.”

As one of Colby’s O’Hanian-Szostak Fellows for Civic Leadership, Yerokun is working to ensure music will be central to the lives of Waterville students by creating access to instruments and opportunities to receive mentorship from Colby students. Through the O’Hanian-Szostak Fellowship, the Office of Civic Engagement, and the Music Department, Yerokun, a biology major, is working with Brendon Wilkins, applied music associate and director of Colby’s Jazz Band and the Wind Ensemble, and other Colby students to support and enhance the College’s IDEAs in Music program.

Wilkins founded the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility in Music organization to provide a space for students, faculty, and staff to discuss important issues in music. Yerokun joined the group toward the end of his first year on campus and has helped expand activities so a dozen or more Colby student-musicians now provide mentorship and instruction to students at Hall Elementary School in Waterville on an ongoing basis. He’s also exploring ways to use his fellowship to place instruments in the hands of students who want to learn to play but are unable to practice outside of school with instruments of their own.

A Black man holds a microphone and looks out toward the crowd he's addressing.
Brendon Wilkins, director of the Jazz Band and Wind Ensemble at Colby College, addresses a crowd at Greene Block + Studios. Wilkins and his students pioneered a new civic engagement music partnership with his IDEAS in Music initiative.

IDEAs in Music dovetails with another initiative important to Yerokun, Crescendo for a Cause, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving music education in underserved areas and utilizing music performance as a vehicle for advocacy and community service. Justin Kim ’24 launched the Colby chapter during his time as an O’Hanian-Szostak Fellow, and he serves on the organization’s national board. Colby is among a handful of colleges and universities with Crescendo for a Cause chapters.

As musical mentors, the Colby students involved with IDEAs in Music help the young musicians build their fundamental skills and serve as tutors for the music they are learning in their classrooms, working closely with Waterville Public School music instructors Colin Wheatley and Sue Barre. The Colby students are involved with the Music Department, either as music majors, ensemble performers, or in other capacities. Many hope to become music educators, and IDEAs in Music offers a valuable opportunity to work in the field, Wilkins said.

Added Yerokun, “I’m part of a dedicated team of passionate student volunteers who are working every day to increase our outreach and impact, so students in Waterville have better access to instruments and more opportunities to learn and perform.”

Spring concert at Greene Block + Studios

In May, the Colby musical mentors and aspiring young musicians performed a concert together at Greene Block + Studios in downtown Waterville. They performed as soloists, with their mentors, and in small groups. There was a lot of pride in the room that night—among the young musicians, their mentors, and their parents.

“It was a really nice night of music and community,” said Wilkins. “It was great to bring everyone together, and we had a lot of families come out to support these young musicians.”

People sit in chairs in an open room listening to a man standing up front and introducing a concert.
Colin Wheatley, Waterville Public Schools strings and orchestra teacher, speaks during the Musical Moments Concert at Greene Block + Studios.

The collaborative partnership is good for Colby and good for the community as a whole, Wilkins said. “Over the last two years, what I have found is the more we can provide opportunities for everyone to become involved in music, the more return on that investment we are going to see, whether providing mentorship opportunities, performance opportunities, and opportunities as audience members,” he said. 

A fellowship for the community

Elizabeth Jabar, Lawry Family Dean of Civic Engagement and Partnerships, said the O’Hanian-Szostak Fellowship has been instrumental in helping students identify, plan, and implement community projects. As Colby’s first fund specifically for student leaders with a significant commitment to civic responsibility, O’Hanian-Szostak Fellows for Civic Leadership are supported through the generosity of Trustee Emerita Anne O’Hanian Szostak ’72 and Michael J. Szostak ’72.

This is the fifth year of the fellowship, and it has supported about 10 student initiatives per year with a goal of connecting students’ academic interests with sustainable community initiatives. Some of those projects have included Colby students working with the Coding Club at Waterville Junior High School, supporting the Waterville Seed Project at Waterville Public Library, and creating the STEM on the Run tutoring program at Waterville Senior High School.

The fellowship program allows Colby to elevate its civic engagement efforts rooted in the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons in downtown Waterville by offering funding for students to pursue self-identified projects, Jabar said.

A project’s long-term sustainability is key to its success. 

“We want the work of the fellowship to outlast the fellowship year, so we are thinking together as a team with our partners at Hall School about how we can keep Naji’s work going. This project is really robust and thoughtful and is meeting real needs,” Jabar said, noting that she often hires students to continue their projects beyond the fellowship. “We are looking forward to next year, and Naji and I are discussing how to expand from the Hall School to the junior high school and potentially the high school.”

Anne and Mike Szostak meet with the fellows each year to learn about their projects and to encourage them. 

“Our original intent was to support the efforts Colby has made in terms of Waterville,” Anne Szostak said. “We are big believers in civic engagement, and all our lives Mike and I have been involved in civic engagement. We think it’s really important for the community and important for the students and their leadership skills.”

Added Mike Szostak, “This fellowship is a chance for Colby students to leave some sort of legacy after they leave campus, because of the sustainability factor. It is not one and done.”

They are both impressed with the commitment and success of the music program.

“Naji’s music program is outstanding,” Mike Szostak said. “We live in a sports-oriented society, but not everybody is interested in sports. These other avenues of activity, such as music, are extremely important. The arts and music are often among the first programs cut in the schools when there is a budget crunch. But we know, fostering an interest in music at a young age is essential to a well-rounded education.”

Making space for music

Yerokun stands as an example. He began playing the violin in fifth grade. A biology major at Colby with a concentration in neuroscience and mathematics, Yerokun’s career aspirations are focused squarely on the sciences. He wants to pursue neuroscience research, possibly specializing in neuro-oncology. Toward that end, he is spending this summer at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C.

A young man poses in a science lab wearing a white lab coat and safety goggles on top of his head.
Naji Yerokun ’26 wants to become a physician-scientist and learn to play the cello at the professional level. “Music is an amazing outlet, a lovely outlet,” he said, “and a great breakaway from my STEM-focused life.”

But performing music will remain an important part of his life, and among his goals is to improve his skills so he can play the cello at a professional level. For Yerokun, music is an outlet for creative expression, a way to relieve the stress of a challenging academic life, and good for his health—research shows that music can slow the aging process and lead to better brain functions.

“Music is an amazing outlet,” he said. “Whenever I’m overwhelmed by my workload, all I have to do is go to the practice room at the Gordon Center, pull out my cello, and start practicing (Camille) Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1. It’s a great escape from my STEM-focused life.”