Dec 06

Promising practices: Hybrid tech/analog system grows STEM mentoring

Keshia Ashe and a student at Tubman Elementary

During CS Ed Week, we wanted to highlight an initiative that pushes the envelope on excellence in computer science and STEM. Keshia Ashe, the co-founder and chief executiver officer of ManyMentors, sat down to talk about afterschool, STEM mentoring, and fostering the growth of underrepresented communities in the STEM field.

In 2011, Keshia Ashe didn’t know she was starting a business. She just knew she saw a problem.

A graduate student at the time, Ashe was mentoring a group of tenth graders, many of whom were interested in pursuing medical school once they graduated. She reached out to friends in the field but kept hearing a familiar story.

“A lot of my friends said, ‘I can’t come, I’m busy, I don’t have the time to drive an hour to interface with the students,’” Ashe recalls. “At the time, Skype was really starting to gain some traction and not have so many technical difficulties, so my friends would Skype into the classroom to talk to the students. That’s really the nucleation site of ManyMentors. It was me trying to solve a problem with the students I was working directly with.”

ManyMentors is an organization that connects younger people to older people in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, using a hybrid strategy that combines face-to-face monthly mentoring meetings coordinated by onsite chapters with a mobile app that promotes sustained communication between mentors and mentees. In addition to more than 400 onsite mentors at six universities in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York, ManyMentors is opening a cohort of chapters in the D.C. region, with students from University of Maryland, Howard University, George Washington, George Mason University, and more.

How it works

To get started, mentors and mentees create a profile that functions as their application, and complete a questionnaire about their interests. Mentors complete a background check, complete a mentor-mentee agreement, and participate in training. Mentees select the track they are interested in, with subjects ranging through the STEM fields. This data is gathered by ManyMentors to begin the matching process.

In January, ManyMentors hosts an event to bring together all the individuals who have signed up so they can meet each other, gathering their own sense of whether the suggested matches will be good connections for them. From there, monthly events are sponsored through the chapters associated with universities, professional organizations, and other entities with the infrastructure to host and convene face-to-face meetings.

“Every week, on ‘Mentor Mondays,’ mentors receive a prompt to engage with their mentee using a question we send them,” says Ashe, the co-founder and chief executive officer. “That’s what we use to keep them connected in the times when they’re not seeing each other during those once-a-month activities.”

Those monthly activities generally take place during the afterschool hours, because afterschool provides the perfect opportunity for mentors to access and engage with students, offering lots of opportunities to develop relationships and explore new college and career possibilities. 

Plugging into the possibilities

Mentoring is crucial for success in many fields, and STEM is ripe for broader and deeper opportunities for engagement. Youth in communities of concentrated poverty, demographically underrepresented youth, and girls particularly stand to grow and advance if they are supported by professionals and college students who share identity traits with them. Afterschool programs are already doing amazing work supporting those students in other aspects of their development; mentoring of all kinds is a natural next step.

“There’s a psychological aspect of success,” Ashe says. “If you’re a woman or a person of color in certain fields, like engineering or computer science, at some point you will be the only person [in a situation] that identifies as a person with one or both of those identities. I think the other reason this program has had so much success is because people are really drawn to others who have those periods of isolation. Mentoring plays a big role in helping people to have a firmer sense of their identity; to not say, ‘Oh, because I’m the only one here, maybe I don’t belong,’ but shifting that to ‘Okay, even if it’s just me, I’m helping somebody get to this place and walk through these doors’ or ‘I have somebody helping me and I feel connected and not so isolated.’”

When she talks about her star mentee – a member of that inaugural class of tenth graders back in 2010 – Ashe’s voice lights up with excitement and pride.

“She’s from Colombia and at the time she’d been in the U.S. for less than two years and barely spoke English. She has since graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from University of Connecticut, and she worked with me in the lab while I was there. She’s now pursuing her MBA. I introduced her to a young woman who was interested in pursuing chemical engineering who was also from Colombia. My mentee is still mentoring her! I like to highlight her because she’s taken the whole ManyMentors model to heart and I know that she’s doing that with other people as well.”

What’s next?

ManyMentors is wrapping the recruitment process for their current year of mentoring, but the organization is growing quickly. Afterschool programs can plug in by creating profiles through the ManyMentors app. Providing the space, structure, and logistical items like transportation make it possible for mentors to engage with students easily, online and off.

Ashe also emphasizes the value of an open mind, when beginning a mentoring initiative. “We’re in a space and time where a lot of organizations and schools are hungry for STEM education. The fact that they’re open and will allow us to come in and do our thing, whether it be in computer science or engineering or biology, makes a huge difference.”

“All of this is about empowerment,” Ashe says. “All of this is about providing a channel to develop confidence and the wherewithal to be active in the STEM space. But it’s also about being in a place and being intentional about growing relationships. When you meet a person this way, you know you might be able to help them one day, or they might be able to help you, but in the meantime, you get to know somebody really cool.”