Jan 19

Mentor Challenge

What’s One Thing You Can Do to Make Lasting Impact?

Photo credit: MENTOR National

Starting the new year with a spotlight on mentoring is a good thing. For this year’s National Mentoring campaign we need to do more. More than ever before, our children need the support and guidance of mentors.

What good is it to know about new career opportunities if accessing the prerequisites is not truly possible? What does it matter to meet amazing role models if following in their footsteps is highly unlikely? Where do we lead youth if we promise they can be anything they want, but fail to even the odds for achieving their dreams?

I had the chance to know hundreds of girls and witness their experiences with role models and mentors as CEO of Techbridge Girls. Some navigated like social butterflies, reaching out to an array of adults, and accessing an abundance of resources. Adults were eager to help. Mentors helped pave the way to internships, offered guidance during a critical juncture in their academic journey, and introduced them to colleagues who expanded their networks and landed them the jobs of their dreams.

But what about youth who have potential and are just as deserving but who don’t ask for help or hold back from asking questions or speaking up in groups? Do we mistake their reticence for lack of interest or ambition? Let’s not leave it up to youth to lean in and build their networks. We need to step up and activate networks and opportunities for all youth, beginning with those with potential and greatest need and least access. We can — we must — make mentoring about expanding real and lifelong opportunities.

Here is what I propose for this year’s National Mentor Month and beyond. That we extend our impact beyond exposure to career possibilities. That we provide access to mentors and nurture the activation of these relationships so that youth can achieve their potential. Here are five ideas for mentors to help youth build social capital for thriving futures.

1) Make social capital as important as career guidance. Talk about personal experiences accessing mentors. Help youth understand how building social capital takes time and practice. Bring to life how you mobilized relationships and sought help when needed. Knowing how you overcame fears about asking for help will be reassuring. Knowing how to nurture relationships and recognize how and when to leverage relationships are lifelong lessons for success.

2) Think deeply how you can sustain lasting relationships. For example, provide your business card AND invite youth to check in as they make summer plans, apply for scholarships, or take on an internship. This will give them practice working at relationships and asking for help. Invite them to a cultural or work-related functions where they can practice social and networking skills. Be proactive and check-in to let youth know you want to hear from them. These efforts can help youth become comfortable sharing updates and successes and reaching out for help.

3) Don’t be their only mentor. Open your networks to expand the social networks of youth. Reach out to friends and colleagues who can be a mentor and bring diverse backgrounds, interests, and resources. Make a virtual introduction or set up an in-person meetup to launch a new mentoring opportunity. Introduce youth to mentoring opportunities through the Society of Women EngineersNational Society of Black EngineersFabFems, and National Center for Women and Information Technology, which support outreach as part of their mission.

4) Help parents understand the value of mentors and how they can encourage their child to build relationships with adults. Host a workshop for families where you talk with parents and help them understand that building social capital is an important skill for their child to develop — just as important as learning math and writing. Encourage parents to ask teachers, counselors, and educators in afterschool programs who may be able to help find mentors for their child.

5) Most importantly, prioritize youth who may need additional support. Their families may not have an abundance of diverse mentors at their disposal who can help them access academic and career resources. Your encouragement and lasting relationship can make an important difference and help them reach their potential. By being available and accessible, you can offer guidance and support at critical times as youth make their way through school, workforce, and life.

Inspiration and ideas to be better mentors

I have been inspired by two extraordinary resources that lift up the importance of social capital and social justice. They offer concrete program and policy recommendations to support access and inclusion so that youth can reach their potential. I highly recommend them to help us be better mentors.

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Photo credit: Christensen Institute

The Missing Metrics: Emerging practices for measuring students’ relationships and networks by Mahnaz Charaniaand and Julia Freeland Fisher. Do youth feel comfortable turning to individuals in their networks for help? Do they have the skills to mobilize diverse relationships? Are individuals in their network stepping in to offer support and broker access to new opportunities? Ideas for advancing these topics are taken up in this important resource from the Christensen Institute.

The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students by Anthony Abraham Jack. Do students attend office hours, join social networks, and enlist adults as mentors and ask for their guidance? Do they reach out for help when they need it rather than rely solely on their own efforts and hard work? Ideas for supporting social capital, promoting access and inclusion, and addressing social and educational inequities are described by Jack.

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Photo credit: Elementary Science Olympiad

Building and sustaining social relationships is a muscle that can be strengthened with practice. This year let’s make mentoring about nurturing relationships that build social capital. Let’s be mentors who decrease the divide between youth born into families and communities with diverse and resourced-networks and those with potential who deserve the chance to be listened to, included, and supported.

I am an advisor for The Family Engagement Project for STEM Next Opportunity Fund. I have devoted my lifetime to supporting families, educators, and role models in encouraging girls in STEM. After two decades witnessing the slow progress in STEM inclusion, I feel a sense of urgency to do more. I believe that mentors can help advance diversity in STEM and social justice if they put social capital at the center of their efforts.

Follow Linda Kekelis on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindaKekelis

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