You know the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime?” Well during the Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) Conference in March of this year, I came across this idea as it applies to matching youth with adult mentors. Ensuring that youth have strong relationships with adults is a key component of the Positive Youth Development approach and one that projects often put a lot of time and resources into. There are a number of challenges with recruiting adult mentors. First, it takes a great deal of effort on the part of project staff to conduct outreach and vet interested adults. Often this requires one-to-one relationship building as broad requests for mentors via flyers or other notices do not result in many volunteers. It is also difficult to assess the appropriateness of the mentor without talking with them first and ascertaining their intentions and experience. Second, it can be difficult for project representatives to convince potential mentors of the importance of their shared experiences to youth. While project staff are certainly able to convince potential recruits about the benefits of mentoring, the incentive for mentors to say yes is just not the same as when they are approached by a young person directly.

So, what if we adjusted the lens a bit, and instead of recruiting and matching youth with mentors ourselves, we taught youth the skills to recruit their own mentors? This seemed a novel idea to me as I heard Dr. Sarah Schwartz from Suffolk University sharing information about a program they have that empowers students to find their own academic and career mentors. The seven lesson curriculum they use teaches young people how to take stock of the adult relationships in their lives, educates them on why mentors are important, and shows them how to reach out and recruit mentors that will help them meet their goals. They talk about eco-maps, networking skills, and how to write a memorable email. They also offer ideas for how young people can keep the mentor relationship going long-term should they be interested. The curriculum ends with a networking event where students can test out their new- found skills.

The National Mentoring Resource Center describes this approach as Youth Initiated Mentoring (YIM). YIM programs “support youth with engaging nonparental adults from their social networks in mentoring interactions and relationships.” Mentors can include coaches, teachers, extended family members, community leaders, and more. Some of the benefits of YIM over traditional formal mentor programs are:

  • Youth initiated relationships may lead to greater commitment on the part of both the young person and the mentor, meaning that the relationship is likely to last longer;
  • The strategy allows youth to identify mentors that match with their own cultural norms, values, and expectations;
  • Youth can recruit multiple mentors to support them at different stages and for various purposes over time; and
  • Training youth to search for mentors teaches them self-advocacy skills that can also support them in taking greater advantage of other community resources and services.

So how well does the YIM strategy work? In a study that Dr. Schwartz and her colleagues did at Suffolk University, they found that students who participated in a YIM program increased the value they put on mentor relationships. In addition, they found that participants increased their knowledge, skills, and feelings of self-efficacy around making mentor connections. Many of the students said that before they participated in the training they did not realize they could ask someone to be a mentor, but now they felt empowered to reach out to those adults they believe could be helpful to them in their studies or career.

In another, longer-term study led by Dr. Schwartz, the research team found that at-risk youth who had dropped out of school or were expelled and enrolled in a youth development project that included YIM training not only selected their own mentors, but were also significantly more likely than those in a more formal mentor program to report contact with their mentors after three years. These same youth also showed significant improvements on a range of self-reported academic, vocational, and behavioral outcomes, including high school completion, college attendance, employment, and earnings.

So I say, why not change our approach and put into place programs that teach youth to fish for their own mentors? It could be the best way we have of getting young people the positive adult support they need while teaching them to self-advocate for other community supports and services.

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