A conversation with Thomas Keller: How programs can maintain long-term mentoring relationships, and next steps in the field

Interviewed by Maaike Kroes and Iris Kools

Thomas Keller serves as the Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Mentoring Research and Director of the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring. His research focuses on the development and influence of youth mentoring relationships and strategies for improving youth mentoring programs. He also addresses the well-being of youth aging out of the foster care system.

Chronicle (CH): You have done a lot of research and work related to mentoring so far. What impact do you believe your work has brought to the mentoring world?

Thomas Keller (TK): I worked in a Big Brothers Big Sisters program for several years before undertaking research on youth mentoring, so I always try to find ways to connect research and practice. I think my most meaningful contribution to the field has been to foster the building of relationships and the sharing of knowledge between researchers and mentoring professionals at the annual Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring. During a week of intensive small-group discussion, researchers and practitioners learn from each other and also develop a foundation for further dialogue and collaboration.

In my own work, I like to present simple models that can bridge research and practice by providing a common framework to understand the fundamentals of mentoring. Some examples include outlining stages in the development of mentoring relationships, mapping the system of multiple relationships involved in formal mentoring, and highlighting the characteristics that make mentoring a distinctive type of relationship.

CH: Given your extensive experience in the field of mentoring, what has been what you would consider a success story in terms of research?

TK: I’ve had the honor of working with many terrific colleagues on a variety of projects, but I want to highlight Renee Spencer, whose research really brought attention to the uncomfortable but important topic of relationship closure. Renee and I recently conducted a study on the development and duration of mentoring relationships, focusing particularly on why and how some matches end prematurely. We worked very closely with some programs that were willing to let us investigate what can go wrong in relationships. First, it was a very successful and rewarding collaborative effort with those programs. Second, when we shared our preliminary findings, the programs were committed and creative in taking steps to improve their practices to prevent relationship closures and/or to facilitate the closure process more effectively. In this case, the researchers highlighted issues, and program professionals generated solutions.

CH: What have you found to be most effective in fostering long term mentor relationships? Are there any factors that promote long-term mentoring relationships that surprised you when you first identified them?

TK: Programs can be intentionally designed for long-term mentoring relationships. For example, the Friends of the Children model provides twelve years of mentoring, from kindergarten through high school, for children with the greatest need. Friends of the Children has paid, full-time professional mentors who are selected for their skills in supporting child and youth development. The program has very high retention rates for both youth and mentors (Disclosure: I’m on the National Board of Directors for Friends of the Children). For programs with volunteer mentors, we have some promising approaches for fostering long-term relationships, such as Julia Pryce’s work to help mentors be better attuned to the needs and interests of their mentees.

In the study with Renee [Spencer] of relationship duration, one important factor was how staff assessed and managed the expectations of participants, particularly addressing unrealistic expectations for the relationship. Similarly, we are seeing the significance of how participants interpret circumstances and behaviors, make assumptions, and attribute motivations to the others involved. We were surprised to find that a simple question asked of mentors and parents prior to the match was a predictor of the actual length of the relationship. We asked, “How long do you want your match to last?” For parents, desire for a longer match was associated with a longer match. However, mentors who responded “forever” were more likely to have early ending matches compared to those who gave more realistic responses (e.g., 2-5 years).

CH: Which area of mentoring do you think needs more research and why?

TK: For the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring I choose a different theme each year to focus on a timely and relevant area of research, and the topics are always evolving.  Recently, for example, we considered how mentoring can foster civic engagement, activism, and social justice. The most recent institute explored different approaches for improving the quality and effectiveness of existing mentoring programs. I recently have been involved in conducting three large, multi-site studies investigating program improvement efforts, and I have seen the various challenges associated with implementing new strategies. I think the field of mentoring could learn more from implementation science, which investigates the significance of factors like organizational infrastructure, personnel, leadership, training, and culture in the delivery of innovative and high quality services.

CH: What changes in the mentoring field do you predict for the future? In what ways, if any, do you think your research will change in the near and medium term?

TK: I believe the mentoring field will continue to move beyond a focus on the mentor-mentee relationship and will creatively tap into the broader social context in which matches exist. Increasingly, we see programs attempting to create mentor-rich environments for youth, to draw mentors from the existing social networks of youth, or to use mentoring to enhance the social networks and social capital of youth. It is intriguing to think about how mentoring could serve more broadly as an intervention to build stronger communities through cross-generational and cross-cultural connections. My colleague, Jennifer Blakeslee, and I are thinking about ways to apply social network analysis to future research on how mentoring relationships influence and are influenced by the social networks of participants.

CH: You have done research on mentoring offered to different age groups. At which age have you found mentoring to bring about the best results?

TK: Right now I spend a considerable amount of time directing a major NIH training program that supports undergraduates from traditionally underrepresented groups who aspire to become researchers in biomedical and health sciences. Each of our scholars has three mentors for specific functions—research mentor, career mentor, and peer mentor. I think establishing mentoring relationships for college students is generally easier than it is for children and youth. As young adults, college students more readily understand the purpose and recognize the value of these relationships, and they also have more accountability in maintaining the relationships. However, I think youth mentoring programs can address this by providing both mentors and mentees with a clear sense of purpose, highlighting progress, and fostering appreciation. In general, I think mentoring can offer distinctive but important benefits throughout the entire life course.