Profiles in Mentoring: A Conversation with Rising Star Dr. Grace Gowdy

Dr. Grace Gowdy is an Assistant Professor of Social Work in North Carolina A&T’s Social Work and Sociology department and currently works on multiple studies examining traditional and nontraditional mentoring relationships. Our Assistant Editor, Saniya Soni, spoke with Dr. Gowdy about her recent study on understanding of the distinctions between core and capital relationships.

Saniya: The concept of core and capital mentorships sounds fascinating, especially given their potential to influence positive youth development and prevent adverse outcomes. What initially sparked your interest in studying these unique relationship types, particularly with systems-involved youth?

Dr. Gowdy: One of the beautiful things about the informal mentoring literature is that we can all connect to it in some way. We each likely had one – probably more – informal mentors that helped us transition into adulthood over a wide variety of topics; your first boss who introduced you to the career that you love or that wise aunt who helped you navigate your first heartbreak. Although in our own memories, we can acknowledge the many different variations of mentors – who they were, where they came from, how long we were connected to them, what they helped us with – I found that the informal mentoring literature itself didn’t necessarily build out typologies yet. There were certainly a lot of studies out there that looks at important variations, from Noelle Hurd and Bernadette Sanchez among others. The core and capital typology is meant to build off of those studies and try to understand the whole relationships and how these whole relationships differ from one another.

Saniya: It’s intriguing to see how youth in capital mentorships focused on future-oriented topics like education and life skills, while those in core mentorships emphasized emotional support and kin-like bonds. What factors do you think contribute to this difference in focus between the two types of relationships? Are there any specific characteristics or qualities of mentors that seem to influence the development of core and capital mentorships?

Dr. Gowdy: In all articles about core and capital mentoring before this one, we found variations were primarily driven by how the young person met their mentor. If you had met your mentor through your extended family or kin-like network, they seemed to have already been around a long time, a trusted part of your circle, and thus in a good position to provide emotional support. I think young people – although they have wide networks – tend to rely on the ones they trust the most and the ones that have been around the longest (i.e., core mentors) for important emotional support and instrumental support (e.g., small loans, a ride, etc.) Almost everyone else, then, fell into another category: the young person hadn’t known them that long, met them through school or employment. Because they met them through school and employment, the relationships tended to be educational or vocational in nature. You can imagine that even if you’re really close with your high school English teacher and he gives you a lot of emotional support around transitioning to college, he likely started with that informational support on how to get to college, with an educational focus from the beginning. So the basis of these relationships are primarily born from how young people met their mentor.

What we found in this study is that that goes a little bit further. As you said, the real foci of the conversations for capital mentors are future-oriented and life skills. So once that English teacher has talked to you about how to fill out the FAFSA and provided other good advice that is educational in nature, they then talk to you about how to budget for books and what kinds of career options wait for you on the other side of your degree. So they’re leaving their formal role as your teacher but staying in that same mindset which is again future oriented and life skills oriented. Your wise aunt, the core mentor, provides emotional support, deep trust, and positive appraisal. I would say that these findings make general sense given what we knew about the typology before this article but its nice to use such rich qualitative data to build out what the day to day lived experiences of each type of relationship look like.

Saniya: Experiential empathy appears to play a central role in both core and capital mentorships, fostering meaningful connections between mentors and mentees. Can you delve deeper into how experiential empathy manifests in these relationships? Were there any particular mentor behaviors or experiences that the mentees highlighted as particularly impactful in establishing a sense of understanding and mutual connection?

Dr. Gowdy: I think the important takeaway of this particular finding is that the connection between an adult and a young person has to come first. You can’t just plop down a well-connected English teacher in front of a kid and know that that relationship will be impactful. The young person has to connect to that mentor first and really no – matter what type of mentor they will become, support they’ll eventually provide, and how long this relationship will be important to the young person – its really that experiential empathy that has to be the initial lever pulled. Renee Spencer has written a lot around empathy in mentoring relationships and continues to focus the literature on those really early and basic relational processes that are essential to building mentoring relationships.

This finding also highlights the youth-initiated mentoring model where these data came from. We were interviewing young people were connected to either juvenile justice diversion program or a nonprofit assisting them with aging out of foster care. They were asked if they could identify people from their past whom they found supportive and helpful, and whom they’d like as a mentor. This was sometimes people they were already currently connected to and sometimes people they had lost touch with. So it seems only natural that the people who rise to the top of that list are the ones who have demonstrated empathy, mutuality, authenticity, high levels of trust – a whole bunch of features that we write about in Spencer et al., 2019. So although the data goes on to help us unpack the core and capital typology a little bit more, it starts with the idea that if you give young people voice and power to select their own mentor, they will select someone who has demonstrated that important first lever of empathy.

Saniya: Your research highlighted some mentoring relationships as a mix of core and capital. While the sample size was small could you share some insights into the nuances observed in these blended relationships? How might these blended mentorships challenge or enrich our understanding of core and capital typologies and their implications for general mentoring practices?

Dr. Gowdy: I think there are two possibilities here. The first hypothesis is that there may be more than just two categories. There may be other categories that we don’t yet understand – other things we haven’t been measuring, measuring correctly, or analyzing correctly and thus other categories that we don’t yet know about. The other hypothesis is that there is more fluidity between core and capital mentoring. That one can start off in one category and switch to another. We saw a little of this in Gowdy & Hogan, 2022 and its certainly a place of future study. One relationship we write about this current paper, for example, was a coach. The young person really valued that this mentor was from the same cultural background – although they weren’t in the same social circles or kin-like network. This same background, however, was an important building block to emotional support provided (core in nature). The coach was also really well-positioned in the community and pushed the young person on school and being future-oriented (capital in nature). This is a good example of a mentor who can hold both core and capital approaches – or maybe one that started off in one camp and is moving to the other. This is still a very open-ended question for sure.