A conversation with Professor Bernadette Sanchez

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 4.26.19 PMProfessor Bernadette Sanchez is one of our fields most prolific scholars and among the most consistent voices for cultural-sensitivity in youth mentoring.  I am pleased to have had a recent conversation about Bernadette about her new studies and more. 

JR: In your study, which we posted on the Chronicle, you explore the role of mentors in a mostly Latino sample of high school senior. What drew you to this particular population/developmental stage?

BS: I have always been interested in educational issues of Latino youth. I have been concerned with the relatively low educational rates of Latinos compared to other groups in the U.S., and the reality is that education is an important avenue for upward, social mobility. Some folks say that we should focus on doing early interventions, such as during the preschool and elementary school years, and I agree.  And some of these folks might believe that it’s too late to work with high schoolers and do intervention. But I disagree and feel that this age group is also important.   In my pursuit of studying the educational experiences of Latino youth, I stumbled upon mentoring as a one of the many ways we can support youth in their education.

Also, my personal background has influenced my research interests. I am a Dominican American who was born and raised in NY. My parents came to the U.S. for economic reasons and did not have much of an education themselves. The constant message at home was the importance of taking advantage of the educational opportunities that they did not have growing up in the Dominican Republic. They saw education as a key to success and a higher quality of life. So these personal experiences drew me to study the education of Latino youth overall.

 JR: Youth who had enduring mentoring relationships also had broader and richer social networks? Of course, one explanation of these findings might be that youth who are able to sustain mentoring relationships might also be better able to cultivate other relationships. How do you separate cause from effect?

 BS: There are two possible explanations. First, it’s possible that enduring mentoring relationships teach and help youth forge relationships with other adults in their lives. Research suggests that mentoring may teach youth how to trust others, to be open to developing relationships with adults, and improve their social skills. Second, it is also possible that the reverse is true: having  rich and healthy social networks with adults lead youth to develop natural mentoring relationship. For example, youth’s early relationships with adults (e.g., parents) might help them to learn to trust other adults, which eventually leads to develop mentoring relationships.

So it’s unclear which came first: the social network or the mentoring relationship? But what’s clear to me is that perhaps we should focus our efforts on kids who have social networks that have very little support and social capital.

 JR: You note that over half of the youth had natural mentoring relationships, many of which had been in the lives for more than 10 years. What kinds of adults served in this role? Were there any relationships that really stand out?

BS: Most of them were immediate and extended family members (e.g., grandparent, cousin, older sibling, aunt/uncle). But a few reported natural mentoring relationships with a teacher, pastor/minister, school counselor, neighbor or work supervisor.

Some of the relationships that really stand out are those long-term nonfamilial mentoring relationships. For example, one young woman, who happened to be an undocumented immigrant, still kept in touch with her 8th grade teacher. This teacher helped her at the end of high school with the college application process and continued to mentor her while she was working and going to school. She struggled to make it during the transition because she had no financial support for college given her undocumented status. But the teacher continued to be a source of support to her during this tough time.

JR: To what extent does your research regarding natural mentoring apply to formal mentoring relatinoships?

BS: I think natural mentoring relationships teach us something about what makes mentoring relationships and mentors so special.  They can teach us some of the key ingredients to good mentoring relationships.

JR: How did you get interest in the topic of natural mentoring amongst Latino youth? Have you had any important mentoring relationships?

 BS: In some ways, I feel like the universe pulled me to mentoring. While in graduate school, my mentor, Dr. Karina Olga Reyes, had a dataset examining the transition to high school among urban, low-income Latino adolescents, and she included some of Dr. Jean Rhodes’ questions about mentoring. When I saw those questions, I thought, “hmm, this looks interesting.” So I started reading about mentoring. At the same time, I was volunteering at a local community based organization in a program that focused on enhancing the educational experiences of Latina youth. The program coordinator asked me to develop and implement a mentoring program for the girls, which I agreed (and unfortunately failedL). These two experiences led me to want to study mentoring further.

Yes, I’ve been fortunate to have excellent mentors throughout my life. From my high school guidance counselor and a couple high school teachers, to my undergraduate advisor, Dr. Judy Primavera, my grad school mentor, Dr. Reyes, and my professional mentor, Dr. David DuBois. Each of these individuals believed in me during times in my life when I didn’t believe in myself, and they supported me in tremendous ways. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them.  Of course, there have always been various family members who have been the biggest cheerleaders throughout my life, to whom I attribute a lot of my successes.

 JR: Where do you see your research going in the future?

BS: I’m interested in examining the processes that make mentoring relationships more effective. I started doing some research on the role of racial and cultural processes (e.g., racial discrimination, cultural mistrust) that lead whether someone has a mentor or the type of mentor with whom an individual develops a relationship as well as the racial and cultural processes (e.g., racial and ethnic identity) that are impacted by mentoring. I’m also interested in the processes that are taking place in mentoring relationships (e.g., cultural sensitivity).