Table of Contents
Vol. 23, No. 3
An article from the Autumn 2010 Issue, Volume 23, Number 3
Helping Young People Establish Mentoring Connections
Laura Grace Weldon (www.lauragraceweldon.com) is the author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. She is a long-time columnist with Home Education Magazine and writes for national publications about learning, sustainability, and spirituality. She lives on Bit of Earth Farm with her husband and their four homeschooled children.
Sonia doesn’t know who she might be today if not for people she considers mentors. In her earliest years she benefitted from informal mentoring relationships. She describes learning to make holiday foods with a grandmother she called Jaddati. Their time together taught Sonia to mix pastry dough with her fingers and how to recognize when food is done by its smell. It also taught her, from watching her highly opinionated grandmother, to speak up for herself. Sonia talks about a former neighbor who let her help as he worked on outdoor tasks. She recalls the utter satisfaction she experienced when his motorcycle started up after she’d assisted in the repair, a feeling as powerful as the sound was loud. And she reminisces about a babysitter whose confidence she envied and whose elegant long hair Sonia still copies today.
Sonia left these early mentors far behind after her mother divorced and moved away with her two daughters. Sonia and her older sister took on more chores including the care of the family dog, a young St. Bernard named Oscar. When the girls walked Oscar together, neighbors told them about a city council resolution to create a nearby dog park. When the proposal failed Sonia went door-to-door with these neighbors seeking petition signatures to put the resolution on a citywide ballot. It took over a year to get the measure to the voters and even longer for funds to be allocated. Sonia doesn’t recall the names of these neighborhood mentors but their calm persistence made a lasting impression on her. She saw the value of collaboration each time she took Oscar to the new safely fenced dog park.
Oscar motivated Sonia to pursue more specific mentoring. By the time the dog was four years old he was in poor health. The family couldn’t afford further vet bills. So Sonia, age 14 at the time, reached out for guidance using the family computer. She registered on several online forums focused on canine health. There she found supportive people who explained concepts new to her such as biologically appropriate diets and responded to her posts with genuine concern. When Sonia needed more information, her mentors explained how to access academic journals through her library, helped her decipher terminology and showed her ways to apply research data to Oscar’s recovery. Sonia kept her online correspondents up-to-date on the results of her efforts. Once Oscar’s health improved she maintained a presence on the forums, participating in off-topic threads to converse about a range of subjects. She also helped other forum members with the knowledge she’d gained.
Sonia felt particularly close to several of her online mentors, including a retired veterinarian whose counsel she regularly sought. He let her know that he was impressed by her initiative. He encouraged her to build on her experience by working at an animal shelter or veterinary clinic, and offered to write a letter of recommendation. His letter emphasized her ability to research answers on her own and her dedication to solving any problem she encountered. Now 15 years old, Sonia was unable to find a job but she used his letter to get a volunteer position at a small wildlife rehabilitation center.
There she mostly cleaned cages and prepared food, but she benefitted from contact with a whole new range of mentors. She observed the thoughtful way adults made decisions and experienced profound pleasure each time she watched healed animals being released back to the wild. Most important to her was the way she felt accepted as a peer by men and women she admired. That acceptance, as she describes it, kept her spirits up even when her home life was difficult.
During the two and a half years Sonia volunteered at the wildlife rehabilitation center she became interested, again, in working with others on legislative changes to help animals. The director of the center began to rely on Sonia to look up information, both scientific and political. The director as well as other volunteers at the center fully expected that Sonia would apply her interests to a career in research or veterinary work. Instead, Sonia is now a student at a large state university majoring in political science. She hopes to enter law with an eye on public service. She says that her mentors gave her more than life direction. They also helped her find the ability and idealism that lay dormant within her, qualities she now hopes to use for a greater good.
Sonia’s eagerness to observe, emulate, and internalize examples of wisdom in action drew her to adults who helped her fine-tune the process of maturing. She was fortunate to have the freedom to help out a neighbor with repairs and later, participate in a local petition drive. As she grew older she was resourceful enough to seek out long-standing relationships with adults she admired. Natural mentor-mentee bonds typically develop gradually within a youth’s social network, such as neighborhoods, churches, schools, extended families, clubs and other relationship-building associations. They are often built on shared interests or mutual activities in larger groups. Many such mentors become regular figures in the lives of young people and such longer-term relationships provide additional beneficial influence (DuBois & Silverthorn 2005).
However, many of today’s youth may not have sufficient opportunities to engage in meaningful ways with potential mentors. Children and teens tend to be separated from ongoing engagement with a range of people in the community. This is partly for their perceived safety (Ungar 2007) due to exaggerated adult concerns like the risk of predatory strangers, fear of physical harm, and a lack of trust in youthful behavior.
But age segregation has a longer history. Transmission of culture from elders to youth has been supplanted by “…the institutionalization of teaching and learning, the removal of young people from familial and community-based learning, and the confinement of learning to the schoolhouse” (Adams, Bell, & Griffin 2007, 362). This has the unintended effect of constraining young people’s active participation in the wider community and thereby limiting vital connections with the very people who might best guide them toward adulthood.
This leaves many of today’s youth relating only to those adults whose main function is to nurture, entertain or educate them. While such relationships are of crucial importance, these limitations don’t offer children and teens the chance to form close connections with and model themselves after adults whose life choices do not center around young people (Weldon 2010).
In addition, today’s young people tend to experience time pressure. Their daily lives are often heavily scheduled (Crain 2004) in activities and programs designed by others. This leaves them few chances to wander next door to help the neighbor fix a computer or to walk in the park with an elder friend. Each natural mentoring opportunity lost deprives the child from tapping into a well of richly authentic experience.
According to young people in mentoring relationships (Beyene, Anglin, Sanchez, Ballou 2002) the importance of feeling accepted by adults they admire is a key to the success of that bond. But even more critical is experiencing the connection as a friendship. Their descriptions of successful mentoring relationships go well beyond receiving advice and instruction. Among many vital characteristics they highlight the importance of trust, communication, shared interests, open-mindedness, patience, approachability, and positive, non-judgmental attitudes. Interestingly, the concept that mentoring is beneficial to both mentor and mentee is increasingly noted. (Philip & Hendry 2000). This illuminates the reciprocal nature of these relationships. Adults as well as youth appreciate the insight and purpose to be found in the unique bonds of intergenerational friendship.
Studies (Sanchez, Esparza & Colon 2008) indicate that youth benefit significantly from consistent natural mentoring relationships. Their educational outcomes improve and their expectations of long-term success go up. A meta-analysis notes measurable positive effects on a broad range of public health measures for young people in long-term natural mentoring relationships (DuBois & Silverthorn 2005). Compared to youth who have not established these relationships, they are more likely to complete higher levels of education, work at least ten hours a week, and exhibit good mental health indicators as well as good physical health indicators (birth control use, physical activity). They are less likely to experience problem behavior such as fighting, gang membership, and risk taking.
A more formal version of the mentoring relationship is often sought for today’s youth. Some schools, religious institutions, and other organizations offer to link young people with adult mentors. These programs have their limitations, because the most effective mentoring connections are those based on close and enduring relationships (Rhodes & DuBois 2008).
Helping Youth Find Out-of-School Mentors
But what about youth who want to be matched with a person in an interest area not covered by any school or organization? What about those youth who have no access to an institutional mentoring program? And what about those who prefer to establish an independent mentoring relationship? There are many ways that a motivated young person can find his or her own interest-based mentor, as Sonia did with great success.
The following information is useful for youth seeking independent mentors and the adults guiding them.
Finding a Mentor by Choice
Sometimes fate and opportunity converge. The right mentor just seems to appear. This isn’t unusual. When a young person has an abiding interest in a particular area, whether forensic science or vintage motorcycle restoration, he or she will get involved in that field in their own way. That may include reading magazines and books on the topic, joining special interest organizations, contributing to online forums, attending workshops or lectures, and doing projects that inspire them to seek out advice. Many of these activities put them in touch with adults who are active in the field.
But sometimes fate and opportunity need a little help, and it is useful to learn about some little known steps that one could take to find a good mentor. Such a search may require concerted effort, but the steps can be rewarding because all the while the pursuit is about one’s own interests.
Identify and Connect
Identify resource people through active participation. Attend lectures and special interest programs. Take part in competitions, specialty summer camps, museum classes, fairs, rallies, and workshops open to all ages. Presenters there have already shown a willingness to be involved in educating the public when they lecture, judge competitions and lead programs. Even if youth are only briefly acquainted with these professionals as a competition participant or lecture attendee, each time they are, they should send these men or women a letter or email of appreciation. This can be as simple as “Thank you, the program was great.” Make sure to mention one’s interest in the same field.
Identify resource people through organizational affiliation. Chances are good that there are professional or networking associations in your area of interest. Consult such groups for information and outreach programs. Read newsletters and research put out by the organization. Join forums. Identify members who have been involved in area projects. Ask if there are local people willing to be interviewed about their research or activities. Again, if one takes part in an outreach program, conducts an interview, or reads an article by a professional, make sure to follow up by sending a letter, blog comment, or email of appreciation that also mentions an interest in the same field.
Identify resource people through academia. Look up faculty listings at nearby universities or research institutions. Check for names of those who have written books or articles, contributed to blogs or websites, or been recently interviewed. Do an Internet search to check out their bios, paying attention to scholarly and mainstream articles they have recently authored. Look those articles up to become more familiar with their work. Young people may need to go through a subscription database offered by the public library system. If, for example, a young person is hoping to assist a scientist in the lab, check out current articles to determine if their research is the type he or she would be interested in doing. To establish contact, write a note of appreciation about a recent article or lecture.
Extend the Connection
Extend your learning. Continue to take these interests as far as possible in the field. Articulate questions too difficult to answer through one’s own reading and investigation. These are perfect questions to pose to the resource people previously contacted. Ask a question or two by mail, email, forum posting, or online contact form.
Intelligent, well-written questions from young people are likely to spark a response for several reasons. First, these experts are often excited about their own field and enjoy talking about it. Second, they are likely to be impressed by a motivated young person who independently is looking for greater expertise. And third, it’s a time-honored tradition to pass along knowledge to young people. That’s how humanity progresses.
If the question or questions go unanswered, pose them to another resource person. If an answer is received, respond right away with thanks. Stay in touch, letting this person know how his or her answer helped advance one’s learning.
Ask how to gain experience. This step may not be necessary for some young people. Connections made in the first two steps often naturally lead to helpful and interesting relationships. If not, it’s time to write a short personal but carefully constructed letter identifying yourself, any background information that might be relevant, your efforts in the field and specific interests in this person’s area of expertise. Make sure that it is clear that you are looking for experience.
Then ask and include a variety of options: shadowing at work; volunteering for a few hours a week; assisting with research or a project. Ask if mentorship is possible, and that your request be shared with others if your recipient is unable to consider your request at this time.
Young people should emphasize that they can be flexible to coordinate with a busy person’s schedule. And of course, remember to offer friendly appreciation.
Seeking a mentor is an excellent way to reach, stretch, and unfold in the direction of one’s future. The potential for synergy increases when young people connect with those who have experience and insight in an area of interest. Sometimes, as in Sonia’s case, it’s even transformative.
Portions of this material were excerpted from Free Range Learning (Hohm Press, 2010) by Laura Grace Weldon.
Adams, M., L. Bell, and P. Griffin. 2007. Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge.
Beyene, T., M. Anglin, W. Sanchez, and M. Ballou. 2002. Mentoring and relational mutuality: Protégés’ perspectives. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education & Development 41: 87-102.
Crain, W. 2004. Reclaiming childhood: Letting children be children in our achievement-oriented society. New York: Holt.
DuBois, D., and N. Silverthorn. 2005. Natural mentoring relationships and adolescent health: Evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health 95: 518-524.
Philip, K., and L. Hendry. 2000. Making sense of mentoring or mentoring making sense? Reflections on the mentoring process by adult mentors with young people. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 10: 211-223.
Sanchez, B., P. Esparza, and Y. Colon. 2008. Natural mentoring under the microscope: An investigation of mentoring relationships and Latino adolescents’ academic performance. Journal of Community Psychology 36: 468–482.
Rhodes, J., and D. DuBois. 2008. Mentoring relationships and programs for youth. Current Directions in Psychological Science 17: 254-258.
Ungar, M. 2007. Too safe for their own good: How risk and responsibility help teens thrive. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart.
Weldon, L. 2010. Free range learning: How homeschooling changes everything. Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press.
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