Dr. Anita Caduff sheds light on immigrant students and mentoring

Dr. Anita Caduff is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of California San Diego and former middle school teacher whose research focuses on the understanding of the transformative power of social relationships, particularly for immigrant-origin students. In this interview with Assistant Editor, Saniya Soni, she shares insights into her most recent study, shedding light on the distinctions between school-based and non-school-based mentors, and the mechanisms that drive success for adolescents across different immigrant generations.

Saniya: What inspired you to investigate the role of mentorship, particularly in the context of immigrant adolescents’ educational attainment? Were there any personal or academic experiences that influenced your interest in this topic?

Dr. Caduff: Yes, there were experiences that influenced my interest in this topic. I am a former middle school teacher from Switzerland, and my classrooms were very diverse, with the majority of students having an immigrant background. Despite having many strengths and talents, many of my students encountered challenges that are not unusual for immigrant-origin youth, including language barriers, xenophobia, discrimination, and dissonance between their home and school culture. As we know, these challenges often result in inequitable opportunities and outcomes. Due to this experience, I’ve been passionate about studying how immigrant-origin students can be better supported to mitigate challenges and reach their full potential.

My scholarly interest in mentors stems from my understanding of the power of social relationships. Like most people, I have personally experienced the benefits of strong relationships, including a sense of belonging, feeling supported, access to key information, and mentorship. I also experienced the importance of strong social connections among my students, and we know from research how meaningful relationships are for educational opportunities and outcomes. This project allowed me to combine my scholarly interests in immigrant-origin youth, educational outcomes, social relationships, and mentors.

Saniya: The study highlights a distinction between school-based and non-school-based mentors. Could you elaborate on how these different types of mentors might impact adolescents from different immigrant generations? What potential factors or mechanisms might be at play here?

Dr. Caduff: In the article, my co-authors, Nabamallika Dehingia and Anita Raj, and I showed that school-based mentors predicted going to college more strongly than non-school-based mentors, particularly for first-generation immigrant youth.

While we did not analyze the mechanisms that might be at play here, my hypothesis is that school-based mentors are more likely to have experience with the processes and best practices involved in college applications, including writing college applications and filling out the FAFSA form. This understanding probably comes from them having attended college themselves and that it’s often part of many high school professionals’ responsibilities to support students in the transition to college. Given this experience, they might be better positioned to advise students on all things related to going to college. I assume that this support is particularly influential for first-generation immigrant youth since their parents are likely not as well acquainted with the system as parents who have lived in the U.S. longer or even grew up and went to school in the U.S. themselves.

And while the effects of non-school-based mentors on educational attainment were not large in our analyses, I still think we should not disregard non-school-based mentors’ importance for adolescents. While we did not analyze the forms of support non-school-based mentors provided, the fact that these individuals were named as mentors implies that they supported their adolescents in some significant way (e.g., support in developing healthy behaviors, becoming independent, and providing practical and emotional support). Again, some of these supports are probably more influential for first-generation immigrants than other immigrant generations as their parents might know the U.S. systems to a lesser extent than parents who grew up in the U.S. or have lived here for longer.

Saniya: The findings indicate that first-generation immigrants benefit the most from mentoring relationships in terms of college attendance and graduation. Are there any specific characteristics or qualities of these mentors that were found to be particularly effective for this group?

Dr. Caduff: For first-generation immigrants, we found that school-based mentors predicted going to college, whereas non-school-based mentors were significantly associated with graduating from college, even though this coefficient was small. Beyond our study, previous research shows that sharing experiences and the same background can facilitate forming trusting relationships. For example, having the same gender, race/ethnicity, or immigrant background can support the formation of trusting relationships. I also believe that mentors who understand the education system and the processes, actions, and best practices in college-going endeavors are better equipped to support youth in getting accepted into college. In sum, I believe that mentors need to have the necessary knowledge to support adolescents, and—equally important—there needs to be a trusting relationship between mentor and mentee for a positive impact.

Saniya: In the discussion, you mention the potential policy implications of this research, particularly in terms of supporting schools and communities in providing mentorship opportunities. Could you share any specific recommendations or strategies that you believe could be effective in implementing these policies?

Dr. Caduff: We should be aware that building a trusting mentoring relationship takes time, and most educators have very full plates already. Also, I think we should not assume that educators know how to mentor students. Therefore, creating a culture of mentorship at schools and providing targeted professional development might be helpful. Such professional development should be grounded in evidence-based practices, such as, for example, the Needs-Based Mentoring Approach by Dr. Allison Cloth and colleagues that you recently featured in the Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring. Leaders could also consider building time into the daily schedule for educators to build strong, non-academic mentoring relationships with students while also being mindful of not overwhelming educators.

As for communities, many students have mentors in their extended families, churches, sports clubs, and community-based organizations that provide programs to young people. Strengthening these organizations, adults working or volunteering in those, and community members interested in or already informally supporting youth by providing professional development opportunities and small stipends for attending those might support non-school-based mentors in doing this critical work.