An in-depth look at youth initiated mentoring

Initiative-STEMSpencer, R., Schwartz, S. O., & Rhodes, J. E. (in press). “Somebody who was on my side”: A qualitative examination of youth initiated mentoring. Youth & Society.


Youth initiated mentoring (YIM) is a new approach to mentoring in which youth identify and recruit caring adults from within their existing communities. By using this innovative approach, YIM offers the potential to move beyond many of the limits of traditional mentoring programs, including the high demand for mentors resulting in long wait-lists. This technique has been used in the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program (NGYCP), a residential program for youth who have dropped out of school and are at high risk for a myriad of negative outcomes. There has been little research, however, on the nature of youth initiated mentoring relationships; thus, the current study utilizes a qualitative approach in order to provide a descriptive account of youths’ experiences with YIM by exploring youths’ perceptions of the mentoring relationship in the context of the NGYCP.


Interviews were conducted with a subset of 30 participants (27 male) from the NGYCP. Youth (16-18 years old) were asked about the current status and nature of their mentoring relationship, how the mentor was selected, the role the mentor played in NGYCP, and their perception of how the mentoring relationship had influenced their lives.


Overall, the majority of youth formed both enduring and meaningful relationships with their mentors who provided emotional and instrumental support in the context of the program and thereafter.

  • Mentor Selection:
    • Most youth were able to identify a mentor with ease and if they received assistance it was commonly from a parent. The majority of youth selected a mentor from extended family, family friends, or through another family connection.
  • Role of Mentors:
    • Mentees generally felt positively about having a mentor; specifically, one participant described how he “needed somebody who as on my side,” because at that time he felt like no one else was. Another discussed how just knowing someone was there for them was meaningful, “it was good for me to have a mentor…’cause you know…that he’s right there…if you needed somebody.”
  • Relationship Quality:
    • Most relationships were long-standing, however, contact and duration of the mentoring relationships varied greatly. As many of the mentors were chosen from existing communities, this allowed for natural opportunities for pairs to meet up and reconnect if they had fallen out of contact. Nearly all of the participants who were still in contact with their mentors at the time of the interview thought they would last very long-term: “I don’t see us falling out over nothin’. So I believe I’ve made a lifelong friend.”
    • Participants also noted how having a prior relationship with and/or having a mentor with similar background and experiences helped a feeling of closeness and strong connection develop more easily.
  • Nature and Quality of Support:
    • Mentees reported that their mentors provided a variety of emotional and instrumental support. Many participants described how they felt understood by their mentor, “sometimes I think he knows more about me than I do.” In addition, mentees noted that mentors provided encouragement and guidance toward achieving their goals.
  • Impact of Mentoring:
    • “Mentors were described as having pushed the youth to continue to make progress toward their goals, bolstered their self-esteem and self-confidence, and having encouraged them to see alternative perspectives.”
    • see themselves in a new, more positive light, “it showed me the potential I could have” and “it made me a better person”
    • improve mentee’s relationships with other people


Overall, this study provides a detailed analysis of both the nature and quality of youth-initiated mentoring relationships. The results provide important insights into the benefits that allowing youth to select their own mentors from their existing communities can have on an adolescent’s educational and vocational success.

A unique aspect of YIM, was found to be the closeness of relationships that was able to be achieved relatively early-on in the relationship, likely due to the pre-existing relationship/connection with the mentor, as well as similar background characteristics and experiences. Furthermore, pulling from an existing social network allows for increased opportunities for the pair to run into each other and/or reconnect, this likely may have contributed to the enduring nature of these YIM relationships.


Thus, youth initiated mentoring may not only serve as an important and immediate form of support for vulnerable youth transitioning to adulthood, but also has the potential to address some of the long-standing issues with traditional youth mentoring programs such as the difficulty recruiting enough mentors, and decreasing the high rate of premature match endings.

This article was summarized by UMB doctoral student Laura Yoviene.