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This woman’s approach to mentoring in San Jose won a prize

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Knowing that mentors can make all the difference for youths, Gisela Bushey designed the organization Critical Bridge. In October, it was named a recipient of the $50,000 Encore Prize.

Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, Calif., chats with a student from Alpha Public Schools, a network of charter schools in the city.
Courtesy of Critical Bridge/Office of Mayor Sam Liccardo
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If it weren’t for her mentor, Rebecca Cruz is certain that she wouldn’t have gotten her bachelor’s degree.

Ms. Cruz went through a troubling time during her second year in community college. She was struggling both financially and emotionally, and the first-generation college student didn’t feel much support at home. Teetering on the brink of stopping her education, Cruz turned to her counselor, Alex Lopez.

“He [put me in] the right direction,” Cruz recalls. Mr. Lopez “told me that education is a long-term investment. Especially if you are a first-gen student, you are going to break through a lot of barriers that have never been broken before. If I didn’t do that, it could be years and ... generations before it could happen again.”

That realization, along with the fact that Lopez pushed Cruz to apply for scholarships just 10 days before they were due, netted Cruz a full-ride scholarship – and ultimately an undergraduate degree in sociology from San Francisco State University.

“All the research shows that a student that has an adult that is interested in them and is paying a lot of attention to them, and spending a lot of time with them – there’s a lot of different positive outcomes they can gain from that,” says Sarah McGill, a program manager at the nonprofit Denver Urban Scholars.

In San Jose, Calif., Gisela Bushey is another woman who understands the importance of mentors, and she hopes to find an Alex for every Rebecca. So she designed Critical Bridge, an organization that is linking with two existing youth programs in the city to provide them with mentorship.

And in October, Critical Bridge received a boost in its efforts: It was named a recipient of the $50,000 Encore Prize, which is awarded by Encore.org, a partner organization of the Monitor that aims to tap the talents of those age 50 or older.

As part of the prize, Encore.org will supply mentors to Critical Bridge. The mentors will work with youths throughout their participation in the two programs connected to Critical Bridge.

“The mentors will ... remain a part of their journey,” says Ms. Bushey, who is director of community engagement in the San Jose mayor’s office. “So they become that consistent adult role model that helps them navigate unfamiliar waters.”

A generation of potential mentors

More than 10,000 baby boomers in the United States are retiring every day, according to Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and the founding director of the U of M Advanced Careers Initiative. Many of these Americans have expressed a desire to give back to their communities.

“They want to do something meaningful. And there’s nothing more meaningful than mentoring across generations,” Professor Moen says. “It would be a real loss to the society and to the community if we let people who want to give back not find the opportunities to do so.”

The mentors for Critical Bridge will have gone through a training program by the end of this year, in which they’ll learn what it means to be a trusted confidant and to be in such a relationship with the San Jose youths. The training is being administered by several nonprofit organizations with robust mentoring programs.

The two programs connected with Critical Bridge are San José Works and the San Jose Promise, both of which were launched out of the office of Mayor Sam Liccardo. San José Works focuses on providing high-schoolers with summer employment opportunities in Silicon Valley companies. The San Jose Promise, for eligible high school graduates going on to community college, guarantees that their two years at those schools will be tuition-free. Cruz was a participant in this program.

“It made sense to design [Critical Bridge] to integrate with the two existing programs that are targeting population that we really care about, which are disadvantaged youth,” says Bushey, who is also an Encore fellow.

One Critical Bridge mentor

Dima Khoury, a former director of engineering for Cisco, has mentored young people throughout her career. After retirement, she became an Encore fellow and the campaign director for Generation to Generation (Gen2Gen), an Encore campaign mobilizing older adults to mentor disadvantaged youths. At the end of the day, she sees mentorship as a personal relationship.

“Take the time to get to know each other,” Ms. Khoury says. “If you take the time to build the trust at the beginning, it would be much easier to build a healthy relationship after that, and more beneficial.”

Speaking from experience, she says mentors might not always have the answers, but being a listener is just as important.

“I think what helps is sometimes asking the right questions and [letting] them reflect on it,” she says. “It provokes critical thinking.”

Khoury is set to be one of the Critical Bridge mentors.

Pitches for the prizes

Critical Bridge received the Encore Prize following a “Shark Tank”-like setup in Boston in mid-October. On a cloudy afternoon, tension and excitement filled District Hall, a public innovation center, as five organizations made pitches to 17 judges (some via videoconference) and 125 people in the live audience. Two $50,000 Encore Prizes were up for grabs. The winners were chosen using a variety of factors that included strength of program, scalability, diversity of ideas, and population served.

Mentors “will guide them; they will move with them; they will be that critical bridge,” Bushey said during her pitch.

Critical Bridge received the Judges’ Prize. The other $50,000 award, the People’s Choice Prize, went to Hire Autism/Organization for Autism Research. In the case of the prize money for Critical Bridge, half of it will provide a stipend for Bushey as she oversees the program; the rest supports the training program for mentors and other program costs.

Critical Bridge is expected to be fully launched next March. Its goal within a year is to match 250 youths with mentors, and it aims to pair 1,000 youths with mentors by the end of the third year.

Giving back

Cruz, the San Francisco State graduate, is now a recruitment manager at Alpha Public Schools in San Jose – a network of charter schools focusing on helping underserved communities, primarily Latinos like herself. Cruz, too, has become a mentor.

“One of the things I’ve learned throughout my experience is that getting through adversity and getting through those challenging times in life is what makes it or breaks it for you,” she says, noting, “Sometimes we are at positions where we don’t have people to go to; you might not make it out from that same cycle.”

But by providing mentorship and resources, Cruz hopes that if such a time comes, students will “make the decision to push forward as opposed to [giving] up.”

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