Alison Drew on conducting mentoring research
Interviewed by Kirsten Christensen
Dr. Alison Drew is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Boston University School of Social Work. She completed her PhD in Sociology and Social Work from Boston University in 2018. Dr. Drew’s research focuses on how relationships with adults, and mentoring relationships in particular, can support the healthy development of children and adolescents.
Chronicle (C): Tell us about your research work and interests? How did you get into mentoring research?
Alison Drew (AD): I’ve always been curious about what makes people tick. I think this goes back to about 5th grade when I started to notice differences between my classmates’ families and my own, and began wondering how those differences were related to our behavior, personalities, etc. This curiosity eventually led me to a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in education with a focus on risk and prevention. One of the themes that was consistently emphasized during my master’s program was the importance of supportive adults in the lives of children and adolescence, so when it was time to start my professional career, jobs in youth mentoring caught my attention. I served for a year as an AmeriCorps Ambassador of Mentoring at Mass Mentoring Partnership and then worked as a Match Support Specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay for almost 5 years.
During my time working in the mentoring field, I saw the ways that agencies were utilizing research both as a marketing and fundraising tool, and to inform practice. I had questions about the matches I worked with such as why some matches ended almost immediately while others went on for a decade or more. I noticed that some mentors seemed really attached to being formally matched through the program (even if they couldn’t see their mentee often) while others eventually felt ready to continue the relationships on their own without agency support. I also wondered how mentoring relationships were influenced by the program’s rules and the support I was trying to provide. The best way to find answers to these kinds of questions- and to have a bigger impact on the field- was to become a researcher through getting my PhD.
C: I see you do a lot of qualitative research work on mentoring. What do you consider to be benefits of qualitative work? What do you think qualitative methods can contribute to better understanding youth mentoring relationships?
At the most basic level, you need different research methods to address different types of questions. I really appreciate the kinds of questions we can ask with qualitative and mixed methods research- questions about how participants make meaning from their experiences and the development of relationships over time. We gain a much deeper understanding of these questions by listening to people’s narratives than we could from survey questions alone. For example, I’ve worked with Renée Spencer and Tom Keller on studies about how and why mentoring relationships end. What really stands out to me from this work is how complex these relationships are and how multiple factors simultaneously influence whether the match continues or ends. Plus, if you ask different people, they will give you different reasons! Bringing together the stories of mentors, mentees, parents and agency staff gives us a much richer, more complete picture of how the relationships unfold.
Beyond what questions we can address with qualitative research, I frankly enjoy the process. There’s real value in giving people the opportunity to share their unique story and experiences. I’m always honored (and occasionally stunned) by how much people will tell me during an interview, even people who have been hurt or feel regret about how things went in their match. I think a well-done interview can help validate participants’ experiences and help them feel like they’re contributing or giving back to the field in some way. It also elevates the voices of youth and parents who might not always feel like they have much of a say in the process. I also get to hear a lot of stories about successful matches that help keep me motivated. The qualitative analysis process really makes you dig down and think about the voices, the stories and the contexts in a way you can’t easily do with quantitative data. Plus, I think qualitative research findings really resonate with practitioners- both because they are straightforward to read and more importantly, because they tell stories that ring true for people working closely with matches.
C: Can you share with us some primary research findings from your dissertation? What do you consider to be the findings’ theoretical or applied significance?
Sure! My dissertation was strongly influenced by my practice experience and questions that developed during that time. I wanted to better understand why volunteer mentors stick with or end their mentoring relationships and how mentors approach building a supportive relationship with a young person. I ended up conducting 3 studies for the dissertation.
When looking at prior research, people tended to think about mentors as either a volunteer with an organization or as a participant in an interpersonal relationship. I wanted to consider these two roles together because they’re both important. Mentoring is a unique kind of volunteering because you sign up to build a relationship with a youth over time. It’s also a unique kind of interpersonal relationship (compared to friendships and romantic partners) because the mentor usually doesn’t know or choose the youth with whom they’ll be building that relationship. The first study for my dissertation proposed and tested a model looking at mentor retention reflecting mentors as both volunteers and participants in interpersonal relationships. The study was small and exploratory, focusing on college students serving as mentors, but showed some support for the model. I’d like to do a follow-up study with a larger, more diverse sample, which would strengthen the results.
The second study looked at how program practices influenced mentor commitment, which has been shown to predict whether someone will stick with or leave a relationship. This study used data from the evaluation of the Quality Mentoring System Initiative led by Tom Keller. The findings suggest that the program setting clear expectations, providing pre-match training and matching the mentor with a youth based on the mentor’s preferences all contribute to mentor commitment. The study highlights why these practices (which are all recommended in the Elements for Effective Practice for Mentoring) are important.
The final study looked at how mentors approach building their mentoring relationships and whether different approaches led to the mentors providing different types of support to the youth. I examined longitudinal, qualitative data from 16 matches that participated in Renée Spencer’s Understanding the Mentoring Process study. I was surprised to find that there wasn’t one best approach for building the mentoring relationship. Instead, what mattered was how well the mentor’s approach fit with the specific context of the match (e.g., the youth and parent’s communication preferences, mentor and youth personalities). Many mentors had an approach at the beginning of the relationship that worked well and that allowed them to provide a wide variety of support to the youth. Mentors whose approach did not initially work and who did not make changes tended to have the earliest ending relationships and were generally reported as not providing much support to the youth. Importantly, some mentors who initially had trouble figuring out their approach were able to make changes by being flexible and open to coaching from the youth’s parent or the mentoring program staff. These mentors ended up providing support like those mentors who initially had an approach that worked well. This finding highlights the importance of continuous monitoring and match support, especially early in the mentoring relationship.
C: What are your thoughts about where the future of mentoring research and practice should go? What are your future plans for research or practice?
AD: One of the things that I love about the youth mentoring field is that the research and practice folks actually talk to each other! Our field is unique in that it has so many channels for dialogue between researchers and practitioners and ways for researchers to share their work with people on the ground (e.g., the National Mentoring Summit, the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring, the CEMB, the NMRC). As a mentoring researcher, I want to feel that my work has value and that it’s not going to just sit on a shelf somewhere. As a former mentoring practitioner, I know the validation that can come from using evidence to inform practice and also that the field needs more research, especially about new and innovative program models. I think it’s crucial that these researcher-practitioner partnerships continue and expand to include new researchers and mentoring programs that are not already connected with the research scene. Practitioners need to be aware of current research that helps inform their practice, and researchers need to know about what’s happening at the program level so they can plan their next study. I look forward to continuing to be part of the conversation!