What if we could help mentees become “mentor magnets” for the rest of their lives?

Vanessa Marks

by Venessa Marks

I clearly remember the first non-familial adult who took an interest in my development. Mrs. Hunt was blunt when she told me that I was not applying myself in her English class, and that I could do better. Then, as I transferred to a new high school, another teacher advocated for me to receive advanced placement, despite my grades being borderline. As a young professional, supervisors and more experienced colleagues have taken the time to counsel me, to open up new opportunities, and have even helped me land new jobs. It’s clear that throughout my education and into my career, informal mentors have pushed me to achieve more than I ever could have without their support.

Many of us share this same story. Yet, unfortunately, a large proportion of the youth who need mentors the most never receive that support. According to MENTOR’s

study, The Mentoring Effect, an estimated 9 million at-risk young people will reach adulthood without connecting to a mentor of any kind – informal or formal. Further, the survey also showed that with each additional risk factor, a young person is less likely to connect with an informal mentor.

These statistics certainly speak to the need for formal mentoring programs, but I think there is an even louder cry emerging from these numbers.

The landmark evaluation of the Big Brothers Big Sisters community-based mentoring program helped to establish that formal mentoring can positively influence a young person’s relationship with his or her parent, and recent research conducted by Drs. Jean Rhodes, Carla Herrera, and Sarah Schwartz on school-based mentoring has broadened these benefits to include an improved relationship with teachers.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America continues to see these relational benefits emerge in our internal evaluation work as well.  Beyond formal mentoring programs, we also know from the work of Dr. Noelle Hurd, Dr. Bernadette Sanchez, and others that naturally-forming positive relationships with caring adults can have a valuable impact on youth throughout their journey into adulthood and beyond.

Clearly, formal mentoring programs have the potential to influence how a young person develops and nurtures positive relationships with adults…but what if we were to seek this outcome with even greater intentionality? What if “being mentored” wasn’t just something we provided, but also a skill we taught? What would it look like for us to more intentionally build the confidence and the skills of our mentees to help them cultivate natural mentors throughout their lives? What if mentors saw themselves not as the sole non-family support, but as a connector to other, additional positive relationships in the present and into the future?

In the research field, we often discuss whether mentoring is a “vitamin” that only impacts youth while services are rendered, or an “inoculation” that, once received, forever changes one’s life trajectory. While many of us might fervently believe the latter, evidence of impact sustainability is hard to come by. But perhaps there is a different way of approaching this dilemma. Perhaps we could better sustain our impact if youth were consistently equipped to cultivate natural mentoring relationships after leaving our programs.

Together with our counterparts in Canada and researchers including Drs. Jean Rhodes, Sarah Schwartz, Tim Cavell, and Noelle Hurd, the Research, Innovation, and Growth team at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is interested in exploring these ideas; taking an opportunity to think beyond the often time-bound constraints of a formal mentoring relationship and towards future informal mentoring experiences for our youth.



8 Comments on "What if we could help mentees become “mentor magnets” for the rest of their lives?"

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  1. Sharon Lasselle says:

    Thank you, Venessa! I read your article in preparation to talk with youth at my church, about the Mat Su Big Brothers Big Sisters bowling fundraiser coming up next month.

    Your dream makes immediate sense, and I feel confident that I can put it into practice not only with my Little, but with those at our church, where I am a youth minister. Actually, it dovetails very nicely with something I got from a youth ministry workshop in November: Help youth identify and strengthen five already-existing mentor relationships in their lives. The elderly parishioner who always says hello; the sports coach; the friend’s mom/ dad… This might encourage individuals to be open to those same opportunities throughout their lives. And it encourages me to consider not only who those people have been for me, but who they are, for me, right now.

  2. Bill Godwin says:

    I could not agree more. I started TSMP a year ago with the belief that the connections I make between UC Berkeley students, as mentors, to local at-risk 4th-8th grade youth, as mentees, would become self-renewing for these very reasons.

  3. Kristine Pugliese says:

    I think the questions you ask at the end of your article are excellent. Sometimes we forget how capable young people can be if given the right tools. I also want to thank Kelly for your generosity in sharing the Youthbuild guidebook. I’m preparing a workshop for teens on the topic of finding informal mentors for a one-day mentor/mentee career event in Pittsburgh. Your guidebook is a great resource!

  4. L-Mani Viney says:

    Intentional mentoring is indeed a skill. Most importantly when working with you at risk part of that skill has to be the ability for mentors to set aside their own biases or “rose colored” glasses so they have the ability to better communicate and relate with their mentees.

    in truth, all mentoring should be intentional. My one suggestion though to the research world is be sure to include in those that are on the front lines and doing the work of mentoring day in and day out. While I have nothing but the greatest respect for research there are times when it loses its practical application in the day to day world.

  5. Thank you, Kelly & Ellen! As we move further along in this process, I’d love to connect with you to learn from the work you’ve initiated!

  6. Great topic, Venessa! At YouthBuild we recently developed (in collaboration with Education Northwest) “Finding Mentors, Finding Success”, a new guidebook that can help youth-serving programs prepare their students for mentoring relationships once they leave the program. This resource offers practical advice for students and graduates on how they can take the lead in finding supportive adults and asking them for targeted support once they leave the YouthBuild program. It offers tips for thinking about how a mentor could help reach goals and strategies for asking potential mentors to take on that role. We have also provided facilitator notes that would allow a teacher, counselor, or other staff member to teach these skills to students and help them practice how to find mentoring support. For more info: http://youthbuildmentoringalliance.org/content/news/new-guidebook-helps-programs-prepare-students-lifetime-mentors

    • Evan Cutler says:

      Thank you for linking to YouthBuild (and Education Northwest) online resources! Please feel free to share any other links to relevant evidence-based guidebooks & resources in the comments section of any future Chronicle blog post. We’re all about spreading awareness of online resources that are available to the youth mentoring community. 🙂

      – Evan Cutler, Assoc. Editor

  7. I love this idea! I think that we all have to create ways to practically help mentors help mentees develop these skills so that mentoring can be a life-long gift regardless of how long the formal mentoring relationship lasts. At Sea Change we have built into our curriculum ways for our proteges to ‘recruit” a team of supportive adults under the guidance of their official mentor.

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