Profiles in Mentoring: A conversation with Maurice Crul on mentoring and immigrant youth


Editor’s Note: I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Maurice Crul at the European Centre for Evidence-Based Mentoring last year. He is a rock star in the field of immigration and has been leading efforts to explore how mentoring affects immigrant youth. Dr. Crul has published extensively on the educational careers of children of immigrants both nationally and internationally. His most recent research project, ELITES, looks at successful youth of immigrant background. He has also been working on the topic of mentoring and tutoring (both doing evaluation research and developing a methodology) and is presently adviser to the largest national mentor program in the Netherlands (funded by the Royal Orange Foundation).Vera van den Berg and Jelle de Graaf are Dutch interns who interviewed Dr. Cruel as part of their placement in the MENTOR/Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring. 

By Vera van den Berg and Jelle de Graaf

Dr. Maurice Crul is Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam and the VU University Amsterdam. Dr. Maurice Crul is interested in the topic ‘education and children of immigrants’. He is the coordinator of ELITES: Pathways to Success research project.

Could you tell us how you got involved in the mentoring field?

Prof. Crul: I got involved in the mentoring field 25 years ago. I met people in the Turkish community who started a homework class in a neighborhood centre in Utrecht, the Netherlands. We together developed it further into a mentor program. And this program became a model for the national mentoring program funded by the Ministry of Integration. I led the evaluation of the national mentor program. From that moment on, I have always been involved in evaluations of mentoring programs that focus on immigrant youth.

Why did you become interested in this topic?

Prof. Crul: My interest in this particular topic started during my doctoral research. In my research I looked at successful youth with a Turkish or Moroccan background.

These youngsters pointed out that their parents often couldn’t support them, because they didn’t speak the language or lacked knowledge about the school system. Most of the time, these youngsters had an older brother or sister that took over the parental role and supported them where needed. After my research findings, I came in contact with one of the organizers of the Turkish student organization Soeba in Utrecht and asked them if they recognized this. They pointed out that they did and that they tried to provide such a role for students during after-school tutoring in the homework that had set up.

Personally, I think it would be great if we could set up more of these projects. That way every child whose parents are not able to provide all the support that students need can get additional support during their school career.

What is your most recent research topic you have been working on?

Prof. Crul: A recent research topic of mine is ‘Integration of refugee children in school’. In this literature study, we compared different countries -Turkey, Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands- and looked at school careers of refugee children. We looked at background characteristics of the youth and their parents as well as the effect of school systems: ‘What are positive factors in an educational system and what are restrictions for them to succeed?’

These factors become more clear when comparing countries by way of their educational system. Questions such as: ‘Why is our Dutch educational system set up like this, while Sweden organizes it differently?’ occur. You can see from the results that the way you incorporate refugee children in school makes a he difference for their school careers. Almost half the refugee children in Sweden continue into higher education in Sweden while those who do in Germany and The Netherlands are the exception. It’s very important for policy makers to notice that different approaches can solve problems in their current system or improve their policy.

A complicated factor in comparing countries is that some things can only change when the whole school system changes. For example, in The Netherlands we have transitional-classes for migrant children. As they are behind in the Dutch language, these students cannot place in regular classes. However, migrant children in Sweden get transferred to regular classes rather quickly. That is only possible, because Sweden offers Swedish as a second language in school in support of these students in regular classes too. This means that they are able to survive in regular classes and they are surrounded with pupils for whom Swedish is their first language. In the end that works much better.

But you can’t just simply think that you can copy that in the Netherlands. You have to look what fits in your own educational system. It’s a difficult aspect, because refugee children who would be put in regular classes quickly in the Netherlands without enough language support would end up in a low educational tracks because of Dutch language difficulties. You cannot change just one thing; you would need to change both.

Did you collaborate with researchers from other countries during this study?

Prof. Crul: Yes, I did. I worked together with Dr. Jens Schneider, who works at the University of Osnabruck, with Professor Alirezab Behtoui -he is an Iranian refugee who has lived in Sweden for a long time- and a Turkish post doc, Elif Keskiner, who lives in The Netherlands.

If you write about countries, it is really important to involve experts who are from those specific countries. Not only is some literature only published in the national language, you also need to be able to put things in perspective. ‘How do things work in practice?’

Are there mentoring programs in the Netherlands that target refugee children?

Yes, I know of a mentoring program in Rotterdam; ‘Mentoring op Zuid’ who also work with refugee children. The program coordinator reports that it goes really well. The coordinator sees that these children are really enthusiastic. Some haven’t been going to school for many years and are eager to learn. The enthusiasm of these children motivates mentors to put extra effort in the relationship.

Do you think the mentoring program in Rotterdam is effective? What are the key factors of the effectiveness?

One of the things that is really important is ‘matching’. We always say that matching is an important aspect while, simultaneously, we don’t know a lot about this aspect yet.

It is one of the things I want to work on with Prof. Jean Rhodes. We want to look in the Rotterdam program at matching based on ethnicity and gender. We want to look at educational outcomes as well as the effects in social emotional aspects.

To train mentors, do interventions and work with a proper method are also important to be effective. For the mentor program in Utrecht I developed together with the Turkish student organization a mentor method and training sessions for the mentors together with the Dutch Education consultancy Sardes. The method basically consists of three phases.

  1. The introduction phase: during this phase the mentor and the mentee get to know each other, set up goals, discuss practical things and mostly help with homework.
  2. The deepening phase: during this phase the relationships grows to a next level. Questions as: ‘What would you like to achieve in your life?’ and ‘What borders you?’ occur.
  3. The closing phase: during this phase it is important to look if the mentee can apply learned skills him or herself independent of the mentor that he/she can translate to their daily life.

This last phase is often forgotten, but really important. If you don’t close the relationship properly, students might fall back into their old habits. When that happens, the mentoring intervention will not be effective in the long run.

Have you had mentors yourself?

Prof. Crul: If you work at the University, mentors are basically included in the system. During my PhD research I had two professors who supported me. Both have been a mentor to me. They helped me to develop myself, showed me where I made mistakes, how to give presentations and so on. To me, the most important part of being a mentor is to give guidance in a field which the mentee doesn’t know yet rules of the game.

Did you have mentors during your graduate program at University?

Prof. Crul: That’s a good question, because I dropped out of University during my Graduate program. Sometimes I can’t help but thinking that if I had a mentor that time, I maybe would have finished my studies earlier. Of course there are more factors. Although I truly think things could have turned out differently.

I went back to University after eight years when I started writing about issues like discrimination and migration. I originally had the idea to become a journalist, but at some point I got interested in the topic of migration. I realized that that doing research was really interesting. When I knew what I wanted to do with my study it increased my motivation to finish University.

Thank you for sharing all this with us. Finally, we would like to ask you a question about the European Center. What do you think the European Center can do for the mentoring field in Europe?

Prof. Crul: Twenty years ago you had all kinds of different mentoring programs. Most of the time those programs were organized at a very small level. These last few years, coordinators of mentor programs have got to know each other and started exchanging knowledge and experiences.

The European commission also expressed that mentoring can help to take hold of educational deprivation. I think the launching of the European Center comes on a natural moment. The European Center can hopefully work as an accelerator in the knowledge exchange between researchers, policymakers and practitioners.