FORUM: Can e-mentoring really support youth with significant needs?

textingWith the explosion in the last decade of social media, virtual relationships, and online communities, it seems that e-mentoring is poised to become an increasingly popular option for serving youth. Many practitioners are wondering if electronic communications can be used to enhance the mentoring experience—or perhaps replace the in-person component entirely.

But what can e-mentoring realistically achieve? What conditions need to be in place for it to succeed? Can it be impactful for youth with higher levels of risk? And does the field run the risk or ignoring issues of technology access and digital divides by replacing face-time with online engagement?

We asked several leading experts in the e-mentoring arena to weigh in with their thoughts…


kevin oKevin O’NeillAssociate Professor, Education and Technology, Simon Fraser University

These are excellent questions to be asking, and while I do not believe it is possible to have definitive answers, I will offer some thoughts. These thoughts are based on my own experiences developing, running, and studying a series of small school-based e-mentoring programs (each generally serving less than 100 youth) over the years. I began this work around 1993, and from the beginning my inclination was that face-to-face mentoring would be preferable wherever it was possible. However, it isn’t always possible. Sometimes the adults you need to serve the specific goals of a program will not have the flexibility in their schedules that is needed to meet regularly with a young person face-to-face. In the end, regular contact with the right person is essential to developing a trusting, reciprocal mentoring relationship that can support personal growth.

People often think that an electronically mediated relationship will necessarily be a poorer one. I like to remind these skeptics that in an earlier era, people sometimes sustained deep and meaningful relationships through letter writing alone, for years at a time. This was the case with the early Hudson’s Bay Company traders, for instance, whose letters to their wives and children in England could only cross when the ice permitted the ships to move. If you place e-mentoring in this context, it is not surprising that elementary school children in an inner-city school in Chicago could be as inspired as they were in one of my early projects by exchanging e-mails with environmental engineers in California and Wisconsin about a project they were doing at school. Having adults other than their parents and teacher pay close attention to their ongoing work, and offer useful advice, was really something special even if the communication was just text-based, and there was a delay of a few days between one message and another.

As your questions suggest though, the nature of the communication that young people experience has changed dramatically over the years. It is now normal for many young people, even in challenging financial circumstances, to carry cell phones and have frequent, instantaneous communication with their friends throughout the day. (I was stunned by recent market research showing that 56% of people aged 18 to 24 who make less than $15,000 per year carry smartphones. In recent years I have found high school students in my e-mentoring programs increasingly frustrated with having to post messages to their mentors in my secure forum, and wait for replies. They ask why their mentors are not available on instant messaging, or on Facebook. When I tell them that we need the mentoring exchanges to happen in a safe place that we can monitor and control, they understand; but they are still frustrated.

While most of my e-mentoring experience is not with at-risk youth, I can tell you that e-mentoring relationships are somewhat challenging for many young people to sustain in the best of circumstances. (I often say that the “e” in e-mentoring does not stand for “easy.”) Particularly if mentors and mentees have to log in to a separate environment to communicate with one another (which, for the sake of protecting vulnerable youth, they should), the relationship can lapse without some regular support “on the ground.” Any young person’s life is filled with competing priorities and distractions, so e-mentors can simply be “out of sight, out of mind.” In my programs, regular classroom work connected with the e-mentoring relationships provides prompts for mentors and mentees to check in. I believe some support of this kind is important if an e-mentoring relationship is to develop into something more than a glorified pen pal or key pal exchange. To me, one of the hallmarks of a real mentoring relationship is that the participants feel responsible to one another. This can happen online, but it takes time and personal investment for this mutual responsibility to develop — and distractions can easily prevent it.


widlanski-esther-headshot-webEsther Widlanski — Director of Volunteers, iMentor

Over the last 13 years, iMentor has leveraged the power of e-mentoring to create more than 11,000 meaningful and transformative mentoring relationships for young people in New York City and across the country. We believe deeply that technology based approaches to mentoring are uniquely positioned to address many of the challenges in our field, including the ability to recruit an ample number of high-quality mentors to support high need youth as well as the challenge of creating mentoring relationships that are rigorous, reliable and consistent.

For e-mentoring to be successful, iMentor has found that there are three critical components of the equation. Here, I will provide examples specifically from our New York City program, which has 2,400 active mentor/mentee pairs this year. In addition to our New York City program, iMentor is currently partnering with 15 organizations around the country who run very successful mentoring programs in the iMentor NYC model.

The first is that we believe e-mentoring – or, in the case of our program, the exchange of weekly prompted emails between mentor and mentee – is most successful when mentor and mentee pairs have the opportunity to meet in person as well. For our program, pairs exchange weekly emails based on our fun and structured college success curriculum. In addition, they meet monthly at large-scale group events that we organize at the mentees’ school or an alternate venue. We’ve found some mentees may feel more comfortable developing rapport over email while others are more comfortable doing so in person. Our program creates space for both preferences, so that each pair is able to develop a strong foundation for their match early on. The additional benefit of combining an online and in-person approach is that it makes the 6-8 hour monthly commitment feel less daunting and more flexible for our mentors. This helps us tap into a diverse and vibrant community of professionals who would likely be unable to mentor if they needed to commit the same amount of time to regularly scheduled in-person meetings.

The second critical component to setting up a successful e-mentoring program is the mentoring service delivery method, as this speaks to Michael’s excellent point regarding the digital divide. iMentor’s program is structured uniquely in that we partner directly with New York City public schools to match entire grades of students in one on one matches with supportive, college-educated mentors. We work in close collaboration with our excellent school partners to fold the iMentor program into their existing college counseling and/or guidance functions. By making the iMentor program a part of the school’s curriculum, we are able to ensure that all of our mentees will have, at a minimum, weekly access to technology to communicate with their mentors. Additionally, we’ve found that matching entire grades of students with mentors has great potential to positively impact school culture and the general college-going ambition of the student body.

Last, and perhaps most important, are the issues of recruiting high-quality mentors and providing high-quality support to the pairs in our program. For e-mentoring approaches to be successful, it’s critical that the rigor of the mentor screening and training process is just as thorough and intentional as it would be for a community-based mentoring relationship. All of our mentors make an outright commitment to spending at least 6-8 hours per month focused on the mentoring relationship, a relationship that will last between 3-4 years of the mentees high school and college career. Throughout this time, our match supervisors spend up to 35 hours per week reading through pair emails and providing targeted support to mentors and mentees.

To summarize, e-mentoring has great potential to deliver critical support to youth in underserved communities. However, it’s of the utmost importance that practitioners approach the construction of technology-based mentoring programs with the same rigor, intentionality, and focus on mentees’ needs as they would for a community-based mentoring program. E-mentoring should not be perceived as an easier approach to mentoring but rather, an alternative approach that may be best suited to a given community or population’s needs.

ellen mahoneyEllen Mahoney
— Founder, Sea Change Mentoring

E-mentoring’s success lies in its ability to reach populations that have traditionally been difficult to reach. These populations may be people living in rural areas, people with physical disabilities, international populations or highly mobile students like kids whose parents are in the military or expatriate kids.

For example, our program, Sea Change Mentoring, works with American expatriate teens who live abroad because of their parents work. This is a population at risk for addiction, depression, anxiety and suicide ideation upon returning back to the US after their parents’ assignment is over. Online technology has allowed us to reach these students no matter what country they live in and provide them with mentors to help them develop coping, social and life skills needed to transition into a well-adjusted adulthood.

On a very basic level, all e-mentoring programs need to be safe, observable (by recording or tracking communication) and structured or scaffolded to direct the mentoring experience. Communication needs to happen often and consistently. Mentors should be trained on how to communicate effectively and appropriately online. For instance, research by CN Shpigelman, of an e-mentoring program in Israel, suggests that mentors who take less of a formal, distant approach in their emails have better success with their mentees.

Beyond these basic necessities, I am interested in the number of ways we can take e-mentoring to the next level and increase its effectiveness. The mentoring field still has a lot to learn about the possibilities that lie in e-mentoring. We can look to the latest research in the e-learning, edtech and gaming worlds to identify tools, activities and online environments that could enhance the e-mentoring experience for our pairs. We should be asking ourselves, beyond emailing or video chats, what else can we provide our pairs to more effectively achieve what traditional mentoring has for decades.

We can recreate the experience of playing, creating and tracking goals, sharing stories and socializing by using some of the same tools that e-learning programs use. For example, on the online learning system, Manaba, teachers and students can collect work and “artifacts” in online portfolios, interact in mutual learning environments and network with other students and teachers with similar interests. All of these tools could be applied to an e-mentoring experience. The New York Times recently reported that American kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend 7.5 hours online a day. You can bet that the online activities and experiences I just listed are ones that they are already familiar with, find relevant and are attracted to.

Jessica-WJessica Wintz — WV eMentoring Program Director, The Education Alliance

Technology is a wonderful thing; we can have the latest news in seconds, view videos in the palm of our hand and connect with anyone across the world without ever leaving the office.  These advancements have made it possible for The Education Alliance to offer WV eMentoring to students across West Virginia for the past two years. To date, more than 1100 students have enrolled in the program.

In the WV eMentoring model, students in grades 8-12 connect online through a portal of activities designed to help them explore their postsecondary options and career fields.  These activities contain information pertaining to that student’s indicated career interest and the steps they should be taking now to be prepared. While those activities are certainly helpful, our mentors are the key component that makes WV eMentoring successful.

Before beginning the WV eMentoring program, mentees choose their mentor based on career fields or common hobbies and interests. At the end of each activity, the mentee write to their mentor with questions pertaining to what they just learned in the activity or they may free write and ask their mentor questions about their own career experiences.  Mentors share their career story with their student and provide insight into their careers that our activities cannot answer for the mentee. While the mentee and mentor do not meet face-to-face, the activities are ‘conversation starters’ that can help create meaningful conversations.

In rural West Virginia, career exploration can often be limited. Some mentees may not have the opportunity to job shadow at a nearby hospital or talk with an engineering professional because of their geographical location.  With WV eMentoring, we’re eliminating those barriers. We have mentees who live in rural, southern West Virginia who are connecting with business leaders who live more than four hours away.  Mentees can connect with mentors in parts of the state and learn about additional opportunities beyond their backyard. This is one huge advantage of e-mentoring technology. Technology allows everybody to participate, on both the mentee side and the mentor side.

To ensure we could serve more students, WV eMentoring takes place in a classroom during school hours with a teacher who allows mentees access to a computer lab.  School administrators and teachers have complete access to the conversations that take place between mentees and mentors.  We also take extra privacy precautions by only exchanging a mentee and mentor’s first name. The program does not allow any other identifying information, such as an e-mail address or phone number, to be given. Conversations are monitored by staff and teachers to ensure that mentees and mentors are kept safe.  Additionally, all mentors undergo background checks before participating in the program.  We feel these are conditions that help ensure that mentees will receive the best possible information and protect their privacy.

While e-mentoring technology certainly does not replace traditional face-to-face mentoring models, we have seen that the same meaningful impact can take place even over the computer.  In our first year of the program, we had a mentee who chose a community and technical college president whose profile mentioned that her school offered nursing.  The mentee was interested in nursing but did not know where to start.  For 10 weeks, more than 40 e-mails were exchanged and the mentee did not realize her current high school GPA and attendance could affect her acceptance into nursing school.  The following school year, she worked to get her ‘C’ average grades to ‘As’ and ‘Bs’ and missed fewer days of school.  She is one of the many mentees who credit their mentor’s helpful advice that helped them realize the actions they take now can affect their future.

Mentees share with us that mentors become more than just someone they share their career choices, but also a friend they felt valued them and believed they could achieve their goals.  That’s what we want to achieve in WV eMentoring; we want mentees to be informed about careers and postsecondary options and have access to a caring mentor who provides advice and guidance to help them.  These relationships only last for 10 weeks and are established through e-mails, but those 15-20 minutes a week can made a difference for a mentees who may think finishing high school is impossible or feel hopeless about what comes next.

In our experience, we see many mentees are often confused by what’s available to them and their mentors are filling in that information gap.  I had a student in a school who was very surprised to hear that many colleges in West Virginia offer theatre programs. “You mean, I don’t have to leave here to get my degree?”  He picked a mentor who works for a liberal arts program that offers theatre and she was able to help him explore careers in theatre.  I had a mentor e-mail me one week telling me she felt ‘so proud’ that her mentee took her advice about checking out a vocational program for welding classes. In their ‘goodbye’ e-mail to each other, he told her that if it wasn’t for her then he wouldn’t have considered looking into a vocational school. Those are the stories that make WV eMentoring such a great program.

Students are growing up in the glow of computer monitors and tiny screens they hold in their hand.  Most adults spend a portion of their workday or evenings in front of their computer.  What better way to connect to each other than through a medium that we’re using more every day and is enhancing  the way we get information?

SarahHinzman[1]Sarah Hinzman —
Coordinator, Iowa Mentoring Partnership

I remember having several pen-pals as a child.  I had three (girls my own age) that I still remember by name.  Two of the three I still am connected to via Facebook.  I remember how much fun it was to have friendly exchanges in the post mail.  I truly was invested in their lives and thought of them as friends.  Such an opportunity continues to present itself with modern technology some twenty years later.

Several of the programs in our network utilize e-mentoring initiatives in their programming.  I have watched this occur in both our urban and rural communities to effect.  Particularly for youth in rural communities or more isolated areas of the state, they can enter into a quality mentoring relationship regardless of their immediate geographic access to a program.  This eliminates the issues of time constraints and transportation that can bog down a match with the best of intentions.  E-mentoring can also help the youth (and perhaps even the mentor) learn critical 21st Century skills like safe use of technology, appropriate on-line socialization, and improved written communication.  Where some traditional mentoring relationships may struggle to verbally communicate or connect “in the moment”, an effective e-mentoring match allows them a safe amount of time and distance to process and better understand one another.  Additionally, quality e-mentoring can be more safe than strictly face-to-face mentoring.  The Iowa Mentoring Partnership has a platform on our website that allows for multiple levels of program and partnership security, supervision, and monitoring of the mentoring matches.  I asked the coordinator of one of our larger e-mentoring programs, Kim Leininger, to respond to this question as well.

Kim LeiningerKim Leininger —
Coordinator, Links to LNX2 Mentoring, Shenandoah, IA

I feel that e-mentoring, just like face to face mentoring, lets a youth know that they are valuable and that someone cares about them enough to correspond, build a relationship, and offer support and guidance. I totally believe that for some youth with significant needs, all that matters is that they are connected to someone who takes the time to “listen” or “read” and respond. For some students it might even be easier to share without the face to face interaction as it is sometimes easier to write out feelings rather that speak them.  It is almost like a student is writing in a journal, which is healthy on its own, but more improved because there is a person receiving and responding. Each type of mentoring has value and the neatest thing about mentoring is that each relationship is unique and can offer what is best for the mentee and mentor who are involved. I have seen evidence that e-mentoring can be valuable for some youth.

We offer our sincere thanks to each of our contributors to this forum for sharing their ideas and program practices. So what do you think? How do you see e-mentoring fitting into the larger picture of working with youth? How do you see the opportunities and challenges? Feel free to weigh in and share your thoughts in the comments below.