Nineteen University of Central Florida students are dedicating nearly 6,300 hours of their time to mentoring and inspiring local middle schoolers.

UCF’s Burnett Honors College has partnered with Florida Campus Compact and AmeriCorps to create the new Burnett Community Scholars program to help at-risk youth gain the skills and knowledge needed for eventual college success.

“Our goal is to inspire that vision of going onto college, that it is a viable option if you work hard,” said Kelly Astro, director of Research and Civic Engagement at the Burnett Honors College.

The program, launched in January, focuses on building youths’ character and developing their self-esteem while helping them realize the importance of giving back. The UCF participants are students from a variety of majors who have strong commitments to service and hearts for affecting positive social change.

AmeriCorps awarded the Burnett Community Scholars 19 positions in January and added an additional 12 in March for a total of 30 participants.

Each student can choose to serve between 300 and 900 hours. After the completion of service, students will receive a pro-rated education award based on the number of hours served.  AmeriCorps has allowed for awards totaling up to $35,000 for the year.

The scholars serve at Jackson Middle School in conjunction with the school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, program, which exposes youngsters to academic and life skills to encourage them to stay in school and pursue higher education. The UCF students tutor and mentor the middle school students, as well as develop community service projects in which they can participate.

“Our students are really excited,” said Jessica Ortega, the student coordinator for the Burnett Community Scholars program. “They are doing it because they want to help the community.”

One of the program’s goals is to help the UCF students understand that service does not have to be an obligation. Serving others is a way to make a difference, and it’s important that students remain civically responsible and engaged, Astro said.

“Just as students go to classes to become prepared for careers, we want them to understand that it is through service that we learn how to live,” she said.

For Ortega, who is the only Burnett Community Scholar pursuing the full 900 hours of service, the real reward is seeing her peers evolve as they make a difference in the lives of the younger students.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to encourage positive change in someone,” Ortega said.