Mentorship — it’s an ancient idea with a new life.
This January, National Mentoring Month is celebrating its 15th year. This organization has consistently worked to focus national attention on the positive effects of mentoring and the important role it plays in the lives of the nation’s youths and young adults.
Founded in 2002 as a national movement, National Mentoring Month has drawn support from many notable partners, including the White House and members of Congress as well as high-profile artists like Quincy Jones and Maya Angelou.
This year, National Mentoring Month is bringing attention to its campaign by celebrating Thank Your Mentor Day on January 21. Mentees are encouraged to show their appreciation for their role models (on social media and elsewhere) for having an impact on their lives. The campaign’s website offers cards and other campaign materials you can use to share your gratitude. The site also provides other free tools and resources for those interested in becoming mentors and in promoting mentorship.
Mentorship in the U.S.
Though organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America are now well-known, the concept of mentoring hadn’t solidified into its current cultural form until Jay Winsten of the Harvard Mentoring Project made it a pet project to spread the word. He already had experience disseminating messages on a national scale; during the 1980s, Winsten worked to promote the concept of the designated driver to combat drunk driving. He wanted to raise awareness of mentoring in much the same way, by making the mentor a “new social role” that everyone could easily understand and appreciate.
Positive Effects of Mentorship
In 2014, the first nationally representative survey of young people documenting their experiences with and without formal mentoring was published. This document (which — in the interest of full disclosure — was commissioned by MENTOR) reports that mentees, and particularly at-risk young adults, saw great improvements in academic and extracurricular outcomes when they worked with mentors, particularly for a period of one year or longer. “At-risk” in this context refers to students facing a range of challenges — some come from low-income backgrounds, some are in foster care, and some are dealing with a parent’s violent behavior or substance abuse, to name a few of the difficult situations that these young people face.
The survey found that 76 percent of at-risk youth with mentors reported that they aspired to go to college, as compared with 56 percent of students without mentors. In the same vein, 45 percent of mentored, at-risk respondents enrolled in postsecondary programs, whereas a scant 29 percent of at-risk kids who didn’t have mentors did. The gains are consistent across many categories. Mentees, compared with students without a mentor, were more likely to participate in athletics, hold leadership positions in extracurricular organizations, and do volunteer work in their communities. As one might expect, students who were mentored were also more likely to become mentors themselves.
Perhaps one reason for the relative success of mentored students enrolling in higher education is their mentors’ ability to help them navigate the college admissions process.
The whole ordeal of selecting colleges, submitting applications, and filling out financial aid forms can be overwhelming, especially for those students who are the first in their families to attend college. First-generation college students often find themselves lacking direction and crucial information as they endeavor to navigate the pathway to colleges and universities.
Fortunately, organizations like CAMINO (College Access Mentoring Information and Outreach) exist to address this need. These groups act as mediators among students, their parents, and institutions, and give youth from underrepresented groups a real chance of attaining higher education, all while fostering a sense of possibility and hope.
Mentorship programs geared toward girls in particular have received substantial national attention — especially since 2012, when First Lady Michelle Obama started a mentoring program that pairs disadvantaged students with female professionals. Obama has been vocal about the many obstacles she faced on her way to Princeton — and how key mentors made it possible for her to achieve what she’s accomplished. Now she wants to help other girls and women achieve higher-education and career success.
In addition to enhancing young people’s paths to higher education, mentoring also offers significant social and emotional benefits, as well. For example, a study among Big Brothers Big Sisters of America participants found that kids who met regularly with their mentors were 46 percent less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs and 27 percent less likely to start drinking. Similarly, a 2013 study suggests that having a relationship with a mentor correlates with a reduction in depression symptoms among youth. Consistent mentoring support helps young people maintain positive attitudes toward challenges by giving them a sense of solid and reliable emotional support.
Businesses and other private- and public-sector industries also have a keen interest in supporting mentor-mentee relationships. Several companies — including 3M, Comcast, and Viacom — (though it should be noted that this is anecdotal evidence) have seen employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention rise when mentorship programs have been introduced. Mentees have also gone on to hold internships and even pursue careers in companies at which their mentors have worked.
As secondary-school mentor Tracy Bennett writes, “Even though I sometimes feel I'm providing very little, it's often just enough to create a real change in young people — it never fails to amaze me."
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