Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

A key tool to battle education inequality: active mentors

At a Monitor symposium, mentors and the young people they work with spoke about what makes a successful relationship – and the impact such commitments can have. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 20: People speak during the CSM's Equal Ed mentor event - 'Mentors making a difference' - at City Year headquarters, on October 20, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. Mentors and mentees speak on a panel: (from l.) Melissa Birke Chu, Rose, Shelby Lindsey-Vaughn and Erin Mabee.

The relationship between Melissa Birke Chu and Rose started tentatively.

Ms. Chu, who heads evaluation and strategies at Silver Linings Mentoring in Boston, wanted to chat with Rose about getting involved in the program. It took 20 minutes of gentle coaxing over the phone to get the then-9-year-old, who was living in foster care, to agree to come – provided her guinea pig could come, too.

Today, the two exhibit an easy friendship, one born of years of commitment and trust. Rose says Chu, who has formally been her mentor for the past three years, has spurred her to share not just her problems but her interests and hopes – and taught her to drive a stick-shift, an achievement that makes Rose swell with pride. Chu says Rose has enriched her life as much as a close family member.

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Caring adults who show up consistently can have a significant impact on a young person’s development. But their efforts – helping to negotiate challenges at school, filling a role that might sometimes be filled by a less positive role model, such as a gang member, or pointing the way to a first job – can also be a factor in battling education inequality.

Yet only one-third of young Americans who need a mentor have one. The reasons are many: busy schedules, adults who worry they might not have the skills to handle mentoring, or even geography. While cities like Boston host numerous mentoring organizations, for example, other places are "adult deserts," a result of parents who must work long hours or have just disappeared from children's lives.

Still, there's evidence that awareness of the need is growing, according to David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. He spoke, along with Chu, Rose, and two City Year Boston mentors, at "Mentoring Making a Difference," a symposium organized by the EqualEd section of The Christian Science Monitor and held in conjunction with City Year Boston. 

“I think we’re seeing mentoring growing in elementary, secondary and in higher ed as well,” Mr. Shapiro said, noting a recent Gallup poll of around 30,000 college graduates, who attributed having a mentor to greater job engagement and all-around well-being.

Do I need a role model?

When Shelby Lindsey-Vaughn first met his City Year Boston mentor as a middle-schooler, he didn’t even know he was seeking a role model.

“She just let me know right off the bat that she was here for me and that was her sole preference,” he said. Her constantly “reminding me of that was very important … and helped build our relationship and brought me to where I am now."

Now in his early 20s, Mr. Lindsey-Vaughn’s relationship with his mentor, Mercedes, continues. He has his associate's degree and has become a City Year Boston mentor himself at the John F. Kennedy STEM Innovation School.

“I want to be that person that I wish was there for me when I was young,” he said. “Reaffirming that [kids] are strong, they are beautiful... I feel like the world is very good at telling them what they’re not, but there are very few people to lift them up with the truth.”

Erin Mabee, also a mentor and team leader for City Year Boston, noted that it's important for prospective mentors to know what not to do.

“I make sure I never say the words, I understand, because I don’t understand,” Ms. Mabee, who is white, said of her empathic approach to working with students of color at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School. “I don’t pretend to understand what they go through or have gone through.”

That's a key challenge for mentors and their mentees alike. Rose recalled a time when one of her earlier mentors made an assumption that ended their relationship.

At a sensitive stage in her teens, she would keep her headphones half on even when she wasn’t listening to music because they gave her a sense of security. But she did so once while driving with her mentor, who quickly assumed she was being disrespectful by not listening, and shouted at her. Rose jumped out of the car on a state highway and began walking miles back to her home.

Mabee and Lindsey-Vaughn acknowledge that showing up for a kid consistently long-term isn’t always “sunshine and rainbows." That is why it's crucial, both said, to keep priorities straight as a mentor.

“I have days where I’m tired and I’m losing patience, but ... whichever student I’m working with that day, I have to be my best self because they don’t deserve anything less,” Mabee said.

Lindsey-Vaughn said it’s all about motives.

“I feel like it’s really easy to want to mentor somebody or go into that role where you’re guiding someone through life and do it for your own selfish ambition,” he said. “They need someone who’s always for them.”

Then he offered up some extra wisdom. "My second piece of advice," he notes with a laugh, "is if you’re working with kids, come up with a handshake."

If you’re interested in becoming one caring person in a young person’s life and making up a secret handshake, please visit the Monitor’s EqualEd page and use MENTOR'S national database to find an opportunity near you. Be sure to watch our live-stream of Mentoring Making a Difference.

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