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How to Create a Successful Mentorship Program

Editor's note: January is National Mentoring Month. Today, Jacquelyn Lekhraj, the director of college and career success, and Gerri Thomas, the chief communications officer at Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, write about the ways to successfully establish and maintain a mentoring program.

By Guest Bloggers Jacquelyn Lekhraj and Gerri Thomas

A student's journey to and through college requires not only the traditional college advisement that is provided in school but also tailored guidance from a trusted adult who can offer the breadth and depth of their own insights. This individualized attention may not always be available to college-bound students in the home or in their high school. Organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters aim to fill that resource gap by creating and supporting long-term mentoring relationships. 

A growing body of research indicates that youth mentorship can play a role in creating positive educational outcomes. A 2012 research brief conducted by UC/ACCORD shows that over 74 percent of low-income youths who reported being mentored went on to enroll in college versus 39 percent who did not. The research further indicates that low-income college students who were mentored were more than twice as likely to obtain a bachelor's degree (55%) than those who were not (19%). Additionally, a 2011 Stanford University study found that college students who took part in mentoring and coaching services were 10 percent to 15 percent more likely to advance to another year of college.

Here are three themes that are crucial to successful mentoring relationships:

Trust Is the Key to Successful Matches 

The power of mentoring to unlock the potential of students is only possible if a student feels a sense of trust and belonging in the relationship. Cultivating this atmosphere takes time, and it is important to provide opportunities for and encourage meaningful conversations between the mentor and student that foster this sense of trust and belonging. This may take the form of a student deferring to their mentor's experience with academics, budgeting, and navigating a social life on campus. The ultimate outcome is to have the adult mentor be a person that the student wants to reach out to while in high school and college and when new challenges arrive in different circumstances. 

bigbrothersbigsister.pngWhen selecting mentors, look for those who are dedicated to your mission and genuinely feel that sharing their wisdom, experiences, and challenges with a young person can be a guidepost. Mentoring relationships are most effective when mentors assume students will be successful and then help navigate the students toward that success.

From a student's perspective, knowing that, for at least a year, an adult will help triage challenges, be a champion for victories big and small, and have patience with youth development is indispensable for crafting a healthy relationship with their mentor. 

When I do slip up, my mentor lets me know that I'm not alone in my feelings ... she actually tells me stories that relate to what I unconsciously said and that helps me to know that I'm not over-reacting or acting childish. It helps me to understand that even adults go through intense emotions and that most adults still need help with their own emotions. mdash;Joiana, 18, CUNY John Jay College

Goal-Setting Sustains and Grows Relationships  

The mentor/mentee relationship should focus on the young person's goals. At the beginning of the mentorship, students should set goals that they hope to accomplish with the assistance of their mentors. These goals can be behavioral, academic, social and emotional, or career- and college-access-related. Encourage mentors to begin the conversation about college when mentees are in 9th grade so that the key benchmarks students need to hit within every grade level, as outlined on the Road Map to College, are on their radars. For many students, it is the encouragement and knowledge that their mentor offers that makes college a plausible goal, especially for students who are low-income or first-generation college-goers. 

Another goal to focus on is assisting students with selecting the college best-suited to their career goals and interests. This requires facilitating workshops that help students explore a variety of college options with their mentors, while providing a space for the mentors to share their own experiences. Students are encouraged by hearing from an admired and respected mentor about the challenges that the mentor overcame to earn a degree or certification and a place in the workforce. 

Goals focused on college entrance and completion are also tangible and give pairs something to work on continuously. Mentees can share their perceived barriers to college matriculation, such as documentation status, income, family dynamics, or imposter syndrome. Mentors can provide tailored guidance to students to demystify the college-application process and debunk myths about who can attend college and where they can go. Mentors and mentees should also dedicate time for reading and editing the student's personal statement for college applications. Having an advocate in the college-application process makes the end goal feel more feasible to mentees. 

Trust-Building and Goal-Setting Leads to Articulating Passions 

Mentoring should ultimately help youths articulate their passions with purpose, confidence, and conviction. Having mentors and partners that provide job-shadowing opportunities, college and career panel discussions, one-on-one informational interviewing, and potential internships is vital to a student envisioning themselves in a position of success. Hearing from mentors across all demographics who are now in fulfilling careers (or on a pathway to one) challenges youths' self-perceptions of their capabilities and encourages them to demand more of themselves. Mentors provide one channel to these elusive (and esoteric) connections that are becoming ever more vital as entry portals into the professional arena. This is particularly true for those youths who are bereft of these conduits of opportunities in their personal networks of family or friends. 

"I think, overall, having a mentor throughout my high school experience, especially as it was the time in which I grew, really helped develop my own view as a subject within the world. In the end, I realized that I want to be able to have a say in things at a young age and acknowledge issues when they are present."  mdash;Jazlyn, 18, CUNY City College 

Case Study: Rodney and Andrew

Rodney Mendez owns his own marketing-technology company and decided to become a mentor to a Latino young man to provide support and guidance. Through Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, Rodney became a mentor to 12-year-old Andrew, who was being raised by a single mom.

Rodney helped Andrew navigate challenges at home and was someone Andrew leaned on for advice about his future and how to best manage the problems he was facing. Rodney helped Andrew earn an internship while he was in high school, and knowing Andrew had two passions, music and technology, Rodney sent Andrew articles discussing the need for more Latino men in STEM fields.

Andrew decided to go to college upstate and major in computer programming. Within the first semester of college, he felt pressure to leave school to be closer to his mother. Andrew's plan at the time was to get a part-time job at a coffee shop and figure things out from there.

Rodney, understanding the impact this decision would have on Andrew's future, counseled Andrew on options to both be closer to his mother and continue his dream of becoming a computer programmer. Rodney used his network to help Andrew find a job teaching coding to middle school students as part of an after-school program on the condition that Andrew enroll at his local community college.

Andrew, now 24, has since graduated from Queens Community College, is now enrolled at Queens College, and is pursuing an internship to explore a career in computational neuroscience with eyes on pursuing a doctorate. Rodney has remained in Andrew's life.

Using these key approaches to mentorship, we can ignite potential among the next generation of change makers. 

Follow Big Brothers Big Sisters NYCHeather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

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