Six Questions with Sarah Schwartz: Youth-Initiated Mentoring and the Connected Scholars Program
By Justin Preston
Mentoring programs across the country are often faced with two interconnected, stubborn issues: The shortage of available mentors for young people hoping to be matched with an adult and the high rates of mentor drop out. The former issue results in long wait lists for mentees. The latter can have detrimental effects on the mentee’s psychological and emotional well-being.
In a creative effort to address these problems and foster improved outcomes for mentored youth, researchers have turned their efforts to bolstering the social networks and social capital of adolescents and young adults to create a web of support, rather than relying on single points of contact. Their work has resulted in a model of mentoring dubbed “Youth-Initiated Mentoring” (YIM). This is an approach that empowers the voice of the mentee in establishing a successful mentoring relationship by providing them a platform and support to nominate an adult from their existing social networks to serve as a mentor. Such individuals may include a former teacher, coach, or camp counselor.
In the first of a two-part series looking at different programs integrating the YIM approach as an influence for their design, we spoke with Sarah Schwartz, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Suffolk University. Schwartz developed a program called Connected Scholars (CS) with colleagues, and she graciously agreed to provide us some background on her work and on the CS program.
1) Thanks for taking the time to correspond with us about your exciting work with the Connected Scholars program. Before we get into the program itself, would you please tell our readers a bit about your background and research interests? What prompted your interest in the study of mentoring?
I went to graduate school in Clinical Psychology after working as a high school teacher in Boston and New York Public Schools. My work as a teacher and an informal mentor to many of my students showed me the power of mentoring relationships, as well as the importance of supporting students’ social-emotional development. In graduate school, I was lucky to work with Jean Rhodes, who further fostered my interest in mentoring.
While my research initially focused on more traditional mentoring relationships (in which youth are assigned to volunteer mentors), I conducted my dissertation on the Youth Initiated Mentoring approach used in the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, in which adolescents nominate an adult from their existing social network to be their mentor. Although at the time few mentoring programs were using (or even had heard of) the approach, our research suggested that the model held significant promise. Additionally, another line of my research focuses on youth empowerment and youth community organizing programs, and I loved the idea of empowering young people to draw on potential supports within their communities.
2) Moving onto the Connected Scholars program would you mind sharing a bit about how you came upon the idea for the program, and how the program is operating currently?
The Connected Scholars Program built on my research on Youth Initiated Mentoring (YIM). While in the YIM model, youth nominate an adult to be their mentor, and then the relationship becomes a formal mentoring relationship supported by a structured mentoring program, I was curious about whether it would be possible to simply provide youth with the skills and knowledge about how to identify, reach out to, and maintain relationships with supportive adults in their communities, without actually formalizing the mentoring relationships. Although formal mentoring programs are an incredibly important way to increase the number of youth who have mentors, they do not have the capacity to reach all youth. Ideally, the Connected Scholars approach could offer a scalable strategy to increase the number of natural mentoring relationships occurring.
The Connected Scholars Program is a group-based program that consists of a series of experiential lessons and activities designed to teach adolescents and emerging adults the skills they need to be able to recruit mentors and other forms of social capital. The curriculum draws on research and theory from youth mentoring, academic mentoring, and workplace mentoring, as well as positive youth development more broadly. The current version of the program is particularly geared towards underrepresented students transitioning to college and emphasizes academic and career mentors.
3) What are some of the key lessons and skills you hope that the CS program can instill in those participating? Why do you believe that these lessons and skills are critical for those completing the program?
Our hope is to provide young people with the skills to cultivate informal mentors and social capital throughout their lives. This includes communicating the importance of such relationships, providing opportunities to learn and practice specific skills related to developing social capital (e.g., asking for help or information, writing emails, attending office hours etc.), and exploring individual and societal barriers to seeking support. Lessons include activities such as making “eco-maps” (visual representations of one’s relationships/connections), conducting role-plays, and actually reaching out to and connecting with potential informal mentors.
Research has demonstrated the critical importance of mentoring relationships and connections with faculty and staff in student engagement, achievement, graduation, and career success. Yet data shows that low-income, minority, and first-generation college students are less likely to develop these types of relationships. By providing students with explicit training and support in how to cultivate these relationships, we hope to increase the quality and quantity of connections students form and, thus, increase academic and career success.
4) What has been the student response to the CS program? Have there been students who have especially benefited from the CS program?
We have been excited by the positive reception to the program in a variety of contexts, including afterschool programs, summer programs, and college campuses. Additionally, early quantitative data from a longitudinal study of a condensed 4-hour version of CSP among incoming college students showed encouraging results in the program’s capacity to increase students’ willingness to seek support and improve their relationships with instructors.
Data also showed that first-generation college students benefit most from the program. Without the intervention (in the comparison group), first-generation college students reported weaker relationships with instructors than their continuing-generation peers (students who have at least one parent who attended college), but when students went through the 4-hour workshop (in the treatment group), first-generation college students’ relationships with instructors improved significantly to the point that there was no difference between the first-generation and continuing-generation college students.
5) Understanding that Connected Scholars is still a very new program, in what areas do you believe it can improve moving forward to ensure that everyone participating in the program benefits from the lessons it seeks to impart?
As you noted, this is a very new program and there is still a lot to be done in terms of developing and identifying best practices. This is a much lower-intensity intervention than traditional approaches to mentoring, and, although simply going through the program may be enough for some youth to be able to cultivate natural mentors, others may benefit from more ongoing support and/or formalizing their mentoring relationships.
We also know that in addition to teaching youth to reach out to mentors, we also need to do more to cultivate a pool of available mentors and supportive adults. The includes training adults (i.e, teachers, professors, afterschool providers etc.) in how to provide informal mentoring to young people. Ideally, we would support both youth and adults cultivating the skills and the motivation necessary to create more informal mentoring relationships.
6) Where do you hope to see Connected Scholars going in the future? Are there variations on the curriculum forthcoming (e.g. short courses, curriculum targeting specific populations, high school freshman, etc.)?
In collaboration with Janis Kupersmidt and iRT [a social science research firm located in Durham, NC], we are working on developing different adaptations of the curriculum, such as a for-credit college class, a high school program, and possibly programs for specific populations such as adolescents with disabilities. Additionally, we will be developing a short training for college faculty and staff in how to most effectively provide informal mentoring to students.
I also am excited about the possibility of combining CSP lessons and principles with more traditional mentoring programs. For example, teaching older mentees how to reach out to natural mentors could be incorporated into termination activities when a formal mentoring relationship is coming to an end. Additionally, lessons could be incorporated into mentee training to help mentees take better advantage of their formal mentoring relationships.
Check back in next week for the second installment of our two-part series on the YIM model where we speak with Whitney Mastin, Director of Operations for the Midlands Mentoring Partnership in Omaha, Nebraska. While this week focused on a more bottom-up utilization of YIM that emphasizes providing skills to youth, next week’s conversation will address the YIM model as it is utilized by mentoring programs seeking to match youth with mentors.