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Human history is replete with stories and myths of relationships between mentors and their proteges
The term "mentor" has its origin in Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey" in which Odysseus, while going to fight in the Trojan War, entrusts the care of his son Telemachus to his trusted adviser and friend, Mentor
(Kalbfleisch and Keyton, 189). A similar mentor / protege relationship appears in other myths such as the one between Merlin the magician and King Arthur. More concrete examples can be found in American history when President Thomas Jefferson served as mentor to James Madison and James Monroe -- both of whom went on to become U.S. Presidents themselves. (Ibid.) In recent times too, educators, psychologists, and business leaders have recognized mentoring as an important tool for individual development, especially for the "at risk" youth. In this paper, I shall describe what mentoring is, its importance in the modern day context, in what fields it can be applied, the desirable qualities of a mentor, characteristics of successful mentoring programs, besides examining what mentoring means to teenagers in America.
Who is a Mentor and what is Mentoring?
In the modern context, a mentor is a caring individual, usually an older adult, who serves as a positive role model, providing support, friendship, encouragement, guidance, and career counseling to a younger person. Hence mentoring is the support, friendship, guidance, or counseling provided by a mentor to his or her mentee. ("Some Questions and Answers"). Mentoring may be of a formal or informal nature. Informal (or natural) mentoring consists of situations in which a relationship between an adult (such as a coach, teacher, or neighbor) and a youth develops naturally. In such situations, an older, more experienced adult takes a younger person under his/her wings voluntarily and without any obligation to do so. Formal (or planned) mentoring, on the other hand, consists of purposefully created mentoring programs that have specific program goals, schedules, training (for mentors and mentees), and even evaluation. Such formal mentoring programs are designed to help youths who may not have access to informal mentoring.
The Importance of Mentoring in the Modern Day Context
Traditionally parents have been the main source of emotional, financial, and social support for their children in most societies. They are often joined by a larger network of an extended family that includes older siblings, grandparents, other relatives, neighbors, and community and religious organizations in providing extra guidance and a sense of direction to younger people. ("Some Questions and Answers," Para on "Why Have Mentoring Programs?")
In recent times, however, such support for our youth has become weaker as more and more families are now headed by single parents
. In urban societies, not many people know or interact with their neighbors or have the support of their extended families. A larger percentage of working families have limited community involvement due to time pressures. Community support is even weaker in areas plagued by issues such as poverty, divorce, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and violence. Such problems affect the youth population most acutely. In such an environment, the importance of caring adults from beyond the family, aka mentors, who can provide support, guidance, and encouragement to disadvantaged youths, is self-evident. In the words of former President Clinton: "People who grew up in difficult circumstances and yet are successful have one thing in common...at a critical junction in their early adolescence they had a positive relationship with a caring adult." (Quoted in "A Message from ... ")
The Fields in which Mentoring Can be Applied
Mentoring can prove useful in a wide variety of settings. It is commonly used in educational institutions, especially with the disadvantaged and "at risk" students. Other fields in which mentoring is often used include business organizations and health and safety. Special purpose volunteer organizations such as "Big Brothers and Big Sisters" in the United States have also adopted "mentoring" as their basic principle and provide the services of volunteer mentors to children and young people who have such a need. (Reh, para on "Application") They offer youth development through one-on-one mentoring for children who come primarily from single-parent families The application of mentoring is not just restricted to educational or work related settings; it can also provide individuals with opportunities to enhance cultural awareness, aesthetic appreciation, and the potential to lead meaningful lives. (Kerka, "New Perspectives ... ")
The Qualities of a Good Mentor
Every adult cannot be an effective mentor. There are certain inherent and/or learned qualities that makes one a good mentor. For example, it is desirable for a mentor to have strong interpersonal skills. Specifically, the person should enjoy working with young people; be a patient and good listener; be confident of his own abilities and achievements, and be willing to share personal experience relevant to the needs of his or her protege. A good mentor must also exhibit strong supervisory skills and be able to help students set developmental goals, create action plans, and schedule time; be able to give feedback and coaching to reinforce positive behavior, and be willing to assume and demonstrate leadership. Most of all, a good mentor must be interested in the growth and success of other people as good mentors have a genuine desire to be part of other people's lives, to help them pursue their interests, achieve their goals, and handle tough decisions in their lives. Those mentors who can empathize and convey a sense of respect and dignity towards the mentees are able to win their trust and are more successful. Effective mentors also have resilience and commitment. (Young and Wright, Para on "Mentor")
Characteristics of Successful Mentoring Programs
Longer the mentoring relationship:
A 2002 study carried out by Jekielek et al., found that the success of mentoring programs depend a great deal on their length, i.e., the longer a mentoring relationship, the greater are the chances for its success. For example, the study found that those mentees who were involved in mentoring relationships for more than 12 months skipped fewer school days, had higher grades, and were less likely to use drugs or alcohol while those in mentoring relationships of shorter duration (3-6 months) experienced no significant improvements in academic, social, and substance use outcomes. (Jekielek, et al. para on "Characteristics of Successful Mentoring Relationships")
"At Risk" Youth Benefit Most:
The same study surprisingly found that participants of mentoring programs who made the most gains were those who were the most disadvantaged and most "at risk." On the other hand, young people who entered the mentoring programs with good grades and attendance records remained on a plateau.
Developmental Approach is Better:
Another important conclusion of the study was that mentoring programs that are driven more by the needs and interests of youth (based on "developmental" approach) -- rather than the expectations of the adult volunteers ("prescriptive" approach") -- are more likely to succeed.
Structure and Planning:
Proper matching between the mentors and the mentees and follow-up supervision were found to be crucial in determining the success of a mentoring program. Programs that provided that provided regular supervision, met with the highest success rates. Consequently, training for mentors before and after they are matched with youth is important as mentors who received the most hours of training had longer lasting matches. (Jekielek, et al.)
What Mentoring Means to Teenagers in America
Teenagers in America generally welcome mentoring. This is because mentoring fulfills an important need in the developmental process of young people, which has become even more pronounced with the rise in number of children living in single-parent families in recent years. Research has shown that teenagers want help in three key areas, i.e., advice, access, and advocacy from their mentors. ("What Young People Want ... ") Teenagers want to benefit from the experience of their mentors as long as the mentors provide the advice and suggestions in a low-key manner and leave the evaluation of the options and making of the decision to the mentee. Similarly, teenagers want their mentors to provide them with access to resources but leave the decision to the mentees to help them reach their goals. Advocacy by the mentors for the mentees is also an important consideration for teenagers as, at times, they need someone to stand up and speak on their behalf. (Ibid.)
Various famous people have served both as mentors and mentees throughout human history; hence mentoring is by no means a new concept. It has gained marked popularity in recent times due to the increasing isolation felt by large numbers of urban youth in industrial societies who do not have easy access to positive guidance from their families and community. Mentoring is especially important for the disadvantaged and "at-risk" teenagers as it can help them to overcome some of the hurdles faced in their everyday lives to achieve success. Mentoring has proved useful in a wide variety of settings, but it is especially important for young people in schools. However, research shows that only high quality mentoring programs in which mentors…[continue]
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