A One-of-a-Kind School-Based Newcomer Youth Mentorship Program

By Lidia Abraha, Reprinted from YouthREX

While there’s little Canadian research on the experiences of newcomer youth, we know they face many unique challenges and barriers that prevent a smooth settlement in their new country. Although parents and adult newcomers have access to local and government services, and elementary students may receive more support by being in smaller, long-term classes, high school newcomers, who are often in a sea of over 1,500 students, might get lost.

Newcomer youth mentoring programs have been proven to have a positive impact on the wellbeing of newcomer youth, such as enhancing a sense of belonging and improved communication and connection with others, thereby facilitating the successful transition into schools and the broader community.

“They just wanted to be part of something and be more connected,” said Patti O’Sullivan, Project Team Lead at the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). She recognized the gap in services and support for high school students who are newcomers and started Connex Youth Mentorship program, designed to connect newcomer youth within YRDSB to a supportive community within their school.

The program took place in seven different schools with four different cohorts. Participants met weekly and enjoyed a variety of activities in hopes of improving confidence, understanding the value of post-secondary education, volunteering, and preparing for employment.

This was the first initiative of its kind in YRDSB, and with that came challenges and lessons from which to learn. YouthREX was tasked with evaluating this program, and we found the program had a positive impact on the participants, teachers, and the entire community.

Building a Sense of Belonging for a New Generation of Canadian Youth

After realizing limitations with creating formal mentoring relationships – especially with COVID-19 making it difficult to meet outside of school and for program staff to monitor these relationships – group mentoring became a strategic approach. Group mentoring has been proven to be very beneficial for newcomer youth; for example, it leaves more room for culturally competent work, as some youth prefer working with peers with similar experiences rather than a one-on-one mentor. This also allowed more youth to build friendships and enhance their English skills.

“Outside of that classroom, they may have never interacted or had conversations or acknowledged anybody,” said O’Sullivan, “so those kinds of natural relationships – they may not be deep relationships — but they are still very important.”

“What we were really trying to do was make it easier for youth to connect, to feel part of their school environment, and to break out some of the barriers that would normally exist for anyone who’s coming in… I think it really did a good job of that.”

– Advisory Committee Member

Studies show that education is crucial to successful integration for newcomer youth. The transition to high school is an especially significant point in the lives of youth, as it has an impact on their future success. Many factors, including but not limited to racism, discrimination, and socioeconomic and emotional challenges, can have pivotal effects on their transition to high school. These stressors increase the risk for dropping out, lower grades, and emotional distress.

One Connex participant shared that they would never tell their parents or family members that they were eating lunch alone because they were already dealing with so much – such as securing refugee status or working multiple jobs to make ends meet – and it didn’t feel right for the young person’s wellbeing to take precedence. Connex created a safe space for them to express those feelings and help them realize they are not alone.

Bridging Resources and Support

Connex also made sure that there was buy-in from the schools, including teachers and administrators, in order to build a pipeline between program support and classroom support. This included providing several teacher training sessions to help them better understand and relate to their newcomer students, as well as allowing participants to meet and engage in activities in classrooms during lunch.

Connex was also able to provide service and resource referrals to participants for needs beyond the scope of the program. For example, Connex staff helped participants organize their own ‘drop-in’ centre to accommodate parents and siblings of newcomer youth who were taking a multi-hour educational transition test.

The Advisory Committee was made of social workers and service providers to help widen participants’ support network. In the evaluation of the program, members reported feeling more confident in supporting newcomer youth of this age group, and were more likely to refer them to available community support and services. As a result, participants revealed that they were actually utilizing community programs available to them.

Read An Evaluation of Connex Youth Mentorship by YouthREX to learn more about the impact of the program. You can also watch Patti participate in a panel of youth program representatives during Part 2 of our Teach-In on Critical Youth Mentorship from January 2022.

To access the resource, please click here.