Final CUOS K–12 Education Outreach Program Report, March 2002

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III. Nuts & Bolts: Replicating Our Organization, part 2

B. Strategies, part 2

2. Mentor the mentors.

Whichever people and groups you work with, keep in mind that they will need appreciable coaching and encouragement for the greatest effectiveness. They will come into the experience with strong but subconscious ideas about learning. These need to be brought to the surface and confronted. We cover a lot of ground in mentor orientations, but many or most of them are hearing ideas for the first time and not yet ready to receive them. You are planting seeds. Later, when they experience some cognitive dissonance “on the job”—things don’t work or people don’t respond as they expected— your words will return to them.

In-person and electronic conversations. This is where our site coordinators and program advisor really make things work. As with most mentoring, this coaching is best done one-on-one. In this context, e-mail has been invaluable to us as a supplement to face-to-face discussion. Eight to 20 mentors e-mail the program advisor every week for advice, to share concerns, to vent, to ponder how to deal with adults (typically parents, teachers, coaches, or counselors) in the lives of their mentees. Sometimes, they ask for academic advice: how can I teach my child fractions, increase vocabulary development, or foster conceptual development? The advisor can suggest alternate approaches to try, including applied problems or some version of manipulatives that can make mathematical operations easier to grasp.

two girls at career fair
Career Fair attendees at The Neutral Zone

    Mentors often ask for help understanding their child or teen’s development: is this normal? What can I do to help him/her to be more self-directed and responsible, or to deal with peer pressure and parent/teacher pressure? Many with older children and teens are very worried about addictions and harmful habits and choices kids are making—drinking at weekend parties, drugs, eating disorders, sex. The advisor must also deal with mentors about their own and their mentees’ choices about relationships, activities, choosing friends you look up to and who make you want to become more than you are.

    This may sound intimidating, but often all it requires is solid listening. They need a sounding board who won’t judge them. Obviously, the program advisor needs to have the time, the heart, and the education/experience required to deal with such issues and concerns. We absolutely recommend against having a director who is a faculty member! He or she will not have the time to do the job right—and the program succeeds or fails depending on the quality of its leadership. The maturational benefits for undergraduate mentors, in particular, hinge upon excellent and abundant advising. This is important enough that it should be a legitimate part of someone’s job, not just an add-on when or if time is available. In this context, we are proud to note that Reach Out! advisor Jeannine LaSovage was chosen Advisor of the Year for UM student organizations in March 2001.

    As they deal with and love their kids, mentors come to recognize the same issues in their own lives. We realize together that we can encourage one another, sometimes support one another, but rarely if ever “change” anyone else. It helps them enormously to use the same analysis on their own lives as on their kids’ lives: recognizing what the problem is, figuring out what they can and cannot do about it, and deciding what to do. We often laugh about this little process: “Name It. Claim It. Deal with or Change It.” This is a recipe for becoming an active problem-solver in your own life, rather than just drifting and making poor choices without much thought.

    Just as mentors come to better understand math or science by trying to impart concepts to their mentees, they learn about directing their lives while trying to teach their children and teens to do so. Helping a young person with learning problems also makes them really think about their own learning process, often for the first time. One advantage of continuing programs is the mix of new and old volunteers. The experienced hands can mentor the new mentors. The volunteers learn from the modeling of behavior by their site coordinators (who have previously been volunteers themselves). The printed handbook we prepare for volunteers is an auxiliary memory and a source of advice when they hit a rocky place and can’t get to an advisor right away, but there is no substitute for a conversation, in person or electronic, about exactly what they are experiencing and might do about it.

Recommendation letters. A powerful mechanism for encouraging the interaction that allows for this kind of personal growth is the college student’s frequent need for a recommendation letter. Our advisor typically writes 80 letters a year. Our UM students let her or their coordinator know one is needed and we begin the process: first an e-mail exchange establishes what they need and when; then the advisor visits them on-site to see what they do and how. Next, they come in for a good hour’s chat in the advisor’s office. They speak about themselves—what they love, their goals and hopes, their convictions, what they learned about themselves being with us and with their kids or teens. Because there is already a relationship, many share pretty deep things —what has been growing in their hearts and minds to bring them to really commit to teaching, medical school, or law school. As you can imagine, this process allows for very personal and meaningful recommendations.

    Very often, though, our UM students come in to share that they are lost about what to major in, or what jobs to seek. We often use the personal discovery materials we gathered and developed for teens to help them look at their personalities, gifts and talents, skills, broad career categories, and so forth. Many feel bad and sad about not wanting to pursue what someone else (parents, counselors, teachers) has in mind for them. They don’t know how to talk to these important others, don’t know what else they ought to be studying instead or even how to think about that. There is such a great need for real, personal counseling about major life choices, and few places to find it. Many feel such guilt and shame about the family resources that have been devoted to their education that they just do what others expect of them, deciding not to really dig in and explore their options. Others, just like the kids they mentor, start to see that their lives are their lives.

    This letter-writing process is very special—an opportunity for them to convey in some depth who they are, what they care about and can do, and why they would be super for whatever they are trying to do. We have incredible young people here! Usually, they have gained great knowledge about themselves from their Reach Out! experiences. It is a pleasure to take the time to help them on to the next stage of their lives.

Keep an open door. Advisors need an open-door policy. Most parents have learned that the quality vs. quantity time dichotomy is a false one: without lots of time, the “quality” communications just don’t come up. Our outreach programs and people need similarly broad opportunities for communication. When coordinators or mentors are in the building to meet or to pick up materials, they frequently stop in. That is when we really talk, share news and concerns, and deepen our relationships—which can’t be done as well on a schedule. Many also make “appointments” with the advisor, but the best sharing, encouraging, supporting, and learning comes when they drop in.

    That is when you can ask questions to help them ponder their life options and obstacles. You can offer them an adult perspective on hard times: that’s when we are pruned so we can grow more; this is not the end of the world or your life; you can learn from this rejection or bad choice or less-than-ideal choice; there are always options. The advisor must truly care about them, must support them in their plans and ideas, must be open to projects that seem overly ambitious or not quite on the mark. The advisor does not so much direct as guide and support from the side, metaphorically running along beside them—getting the resources they need but can’t get themselves (people, stuff, transportation, food). The advisor’s job is not just to run programs but to develop young adults: let them grow, evolve, and develop into themselves—not what you think they should be or do, or what the program “needs.” Let them make mistakes and then see that we all learned from them. Be available! Sometimes you have to literally drop what you are doing or where you were going to be there for them. They are our top priority.

Meet them where they hang out. The advisor often meets mentors downtown or on central campus, for coffee, ice cream, etc. For them to come to North Campus is often hard (many have never been here, in fact, before joining Reach Out!). It is also a way to show respect for them, their time, and “their” campus by coming to see them. We’ve done lots of planning meetings over breakfast, coffee, a smoothie. Often, our older partners come, too—such as Kiwanis friends, as we plan for career mentoring, shadowing experiences, and career fairs. We must note how rich an intergenerational environment can be for all concerned. Whether children, teens, young adults, the middle-aged, or the elderly, we have all learned from each other—including the writers of this report.

teens and mentor at Neutral Zone
Coordinator & mentees
at The Neutral Zone

A couple of final notes. We have learned that young people—whether they are our elementary-aged “wizards” or our university students, should be explicitly prompted to think about their status as role models for those younger than they and as representatives of the university and of Reach Out! They will typically rise to the occasion, but sometimes this does not occur to them independently! Finally, when they invite you to meet family and friends, make every attempt to do that!


C. Voices, continued

We all mean well, but we all only know what we know.

- Kiwanis career mentor

You stop to think about it and young people really don’t know much about work and careers. I mean, we usually know about fields because of our parents or family members or maybe a friend. I think about the dental school. Many of those students were following in their parents’ footsteps or somebody they knew well. You think that high schools have counselors there to really delve into career planning, but that really isn’t true. There is so much else they are doing and, really, what would they know about careers and how they are changing anyhow? This is important. And you want young people to eventually be happy with their jobs. That just can’t happen if they don’t get a grasp of what they are about and good at, and what they can study and go into that will be rewarding. I think parents, teachers and counselors oftentimes mean well, but they steer students into career paths that really aren’t going to be a fit for them. I think now about how little we all know and how we need mentoring and things like this to get a broader group of people available for these young people with a much broader range of careers to see. We all mean well, but we all only know what we know. We have to come together to share with them our collective knowledge, experiences, careers and workplaces. There is so much now that they can go into. You don’t want them to go down one narrow path only to come out and see that they don’t enjoy that line of work. Then what? Do they take more time out to go back to college or for training? Do they borrow more money and have more student loans? And what will they go into, anyhow, that would make them happier than what they are in now? You see this so often. They get out of college, say, and into a career that they just don’t like. But then what? I think they often get painted into a corner. We have to start much earlier and with many people to show them what they can be and go into.

How can our young people reach for a goal that they know nothing or very little about?

- Kiwanis career mentor

We all get so busy. Moms and dads are busy. Grandparents are busy and many don’t see their grandchildren very often and when they do, they aren’t thinking about talking about careers or life plans. We all are so busy, going here and being there. Career mentoring is something we really need to stop and think about and do. How can our young people reach for a goal that they know nothing or very little about? How can they learn about work and jobs and careers if we (community and families) don’t take the time to show them? I was pretty surprised that my student liked what we did so much. I mean I’m an older person and I thought that he wouldn’t think I was very up on things or want to listen to me. That wasn’t the case.

I have to learn, and if it isn’t happening, I have to do something.

- Middle school career mentee

It’s so weird to think about how we all are so different from each other. I really liked looking at temperaments and learning styles. I mean, I’ve never really learned about things like this before and it all was so fun and interesting. I also got to thinking how I have to do my own learning. I mean I can’t sit back and think it will just happen to me. That day we talked about that got to me. I was kind of thinking that a teacher or something has to teach me, you know? But, I mean, I have to learn and if it isn’t happening, I mean, I have to do something. I don’t think I’d ever thought about that before. I really think I want to work with computers, but I can’t go to college for that if I don’t do okay in other classes, you know? I can’t just forget about English and stuff or forget about my grades in them. I liked seeing how [other students] all like different things and finding out about careers we might really like. I liked the poet—she was way cool. I like to write but I hadn’t really thought about that much. She talked about writing for a newspaper or magazine, too, or writing your own book, or working with somebody else on a book together, or being an editor, or writing manuals for computer software. I really have learned a lot from this. Thank you for doing it.

I never thought about having to know all the pounds of weight on a plane.

- Summer algebra student

The airport was cool. I didn’t know you could get a license to drive a small plane like you get a license to drive a car. And that thing about renting a pilot and plane to go someplace—that’s cool. I never thought about having to know all the pounds of weight on a plane. That was really interesting, thinking about when I fly that they weigh my suitcase and put it in the computer. I really liked seeing the small planes and inside one of them, too. Isn’t that funny that they figure out fuel in a plane by pounds and not gallons? That was a fun day. I liked it.

They need someone, an adult, to focus just on them.

- Middle school teacher

Attention. I think that word sums it up in many ways. I need the attention and my kids need the attention. It feels good to have [the career mentors] come into my classroom and pick my kids up. Some days when I have been down, their smiles have lifted me up, for the whole day. Some days when I have felt all alone trying to teach these kids, they make me see I’m not all alone. We get a team thing going and I’m telling you that it feels good. I know my students love this. They need someone, an adult, to focus just on them. To feel special. To be heard. To be asked questions to think about who they are, what they are good at. And the job shadowing is so important. What jobs are there out there? Who are people to share with them what they can become? I can’t deal with that and I don’t know who to get with to do that on my own. And, I have to teach, that’s my job. But I know that this part is so important for the kids. This experience has made a huge difference in many of our students’ lives. It didn’t take a lot out of any of us, I mean, really when you think of it. But look at the rewards, look at the difference it has made in some of these kids’ lives. We’ve had kids that just didn’t care about school turn around. I’ve had girls who were aloof and suffering so little self-confidence really change. Attention. Caring. Being there to smile and listen and encourage you. Our career mentors do that for the kids and all of us.


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