Mentoring in the era of COVID-19: Nine experts in the field weigh in

By Justin Preston and Monica Arkin


Dr. Tim Cavell,  Janet Forbush, Michael Garringer, Dr. Samuel Dale McQuillin , Dr. Òscar Prieto-Flores, Dr. Bernadette Sánchez, Szilvia Simon, Dr. Renée Spencer, & Dr. Lindsey Weiler  Additional experts mentioned in this piece: Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan, Steve Vassor, Dr. Noelle Hurd, & Dr. Belle Liang

The world seems a very different place than it was just one year ago. Individuals and communities have faced physical and mental health challenges, we continue to grapple with the enduring legacies of racial and economic injustice, and it can feel like we have never been further apart from one another – literally and figuratively. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light, and often exacerbated, the challenges that many youth face. The pandemic has also highlighted the fundamental need for human connection that mentoring provides.

The field has faced dramatic shifts in the ways in which programs deliver services and mentors engage with their mentees. The conditions we face currently and the ways in which the field of mentoring has responded have underscored the truth of the old adage, Mater artium necessitas, or, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In the early days of the COVID-19 Pandemic, The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring invited leading researchers and program policy experts to critically reflect on mentoring’s past, present, and future given the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking Back: The State of the Field Before COVID-19

We first take a look at where we’ve been: mentoring before the start of the pandemic. We asked our colleagues to reflect on the biggest strengths of youth mentoring as it functioned prior to 2020, as well as the biggest challenges facing youth mentoring over the course of the past few years.

Michael Garringer, Director of Research and Evaluation at MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, this country’s most prominent mentoring advocacy organization. “This field had plenty of strengths prior to our current circumstances, and still does,” notes. He cites programs’ ability to be resourceful and continuously effective when it comes to bringing adults from the community into the lives of children. “Getting individuals to work that kind of person-to-person volunteering into their busy lives is challenging, but I think our field has done a really good job of reaching adults, generally,” he says.

Janet Forbush, a veteran policy and research advocate in the field of mentoring, agrees, “The role that mentoring played in introducing people to resources, ideas, and approaches for using mentoring as a vehicle for helping challenged youth” has been a great strength of the field. Mentoring, she notes, “was strengths-based and the vehicles that were prominent in that endeavor largely focused on collaboration and a sense of community, working with practitioners and with those that were the constituents of mentoring in their local communities.”

That level of community engagement has not always been as successful as program directors and advocates may hope, where the goal is to pair every mentor with a youth who would like or needs a mentor, but they have been able to create a steady level of engagement and volunteering. Although overall volunteering rates from the mid-2000’s to mid-2010’s dropped significantly, rates of volunteering in mentoring maintained stable and even modestly increased over that same period of time.

Not only were programs able to sustain their rates of volunteering over time, they were also providing more sophisticated and comprehensive training. Resources for programs and mentors offering evidence-based guidance, such as the National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC) for example, have provided additional platforms for researchers and program staff to more effectively target the needs of their mentees. “I see far fewer ‘cookie cutter’ trainings than I used to and I see more trainings addressing complicated topics like trauma exposure or the use of change talk strategies,” says Garringer. “I think our mentors are more skilled in what they bring to a child than they were decades ago. The professional development and intellectual curiosity of program staff has a lot to do with that. I see more practitioners paying attention to, and applying, research more than ever before. Their knowledge is being passed on to mentors at a high level, I think.”

In part, this sustained rate of volunteerism in mentoring may have been the product of efforts to engage organizations who have an interest in mentoring. “I think the field as a whole has done a good job of getting both the public and private sectors increasingly interested in mentoring, both as investors of their resources and in terms of expanding where and how mentoring relationships are applied to diverse community needs,” says Garringer. In what has been described as a complex philanthropic environment, particularly over the past several years, the ability of those in the field of mentoring to connect with supporters has been a strength.

Despite the field’s successes, however, there were also significant challenges that faced mentoring in the United States even before 2020. One such challenge mentioned by many of the experts who responded to our invitation has been defining “mentoring” as one single concept.

Dr. Tim Cavell, a Professor with the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Arkansas, has found this generalized concept of mentoring a major challenge, noting the difficulty of “conducting research in a field where the intervention is theoretically underspecified while the practice culture and program strategies are firmly instantiated.” That is, attempting to conduct research and identify best practices in a subject area where those active in the field are certain how mentoring should be implemented without necessarily having clarity on what exactly mentoring is. Garringer agrees, “The reality is that mentoring relationships happen in all kinds of contexts and circumstances and in and out of programs and with an infinite array of goals and areas of emphasis. Yet we often talk about ‘the impact of mentoring’ globally or want easy comparisons of mentored and unmentored kids. But that’s not how this field, or the world, really works.”

Dr. Bernadette Sánchez, Professor of Community Psychology at DePaul University. According to Dr. Sanchez, this focus on a general “field of mentoring,” so to speak, could be linked to another challenge that has troubled mentoring programs, researchers, and advocates: A laser-like focus on the individual mentee or mentoring relationship that tends not to account for broader factors and influences that affect us all. “The biggest challenge that our field was facing prior to 2020 (and still is) is that we focused heavily on how mentoring affects youth outcomes without enough or much consideration of the youth’s context or the mentor’s experience in the process and what mentors are getting out of mentoring,”.

Dr. Lindsey Weiler, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota. says that his has been improving over the course of recent years “In the past few years, there has been greater attention paid to identifying the blind spots present in youth mentoring (e.g., identifying who is left out and how, checking our assumptions about what constitutes a quality program, challenging biases about parents and caregivers). I think we have a ways to go in realizing our collective and individual blind spots that may be limiting youth mentoring research and practice, but I’m encouraged by the active steps taken by many in the field.”

One such “blind spot” may be the field’s overemphasis on the individual to the exclusion of all else. “Our field has mostly focused on individual-level change by providing youth with skills, extra supports, and opportunities. At best, some programs and research may have focused on youth’s strengths, rather than deficits, and access to opportunities that youth would not have otherwise. Remember that our field mostly serves low-income, youth of color, but we have been operating in a vacuum without looking at the larger systemic forces (e.g., racism, heterosexism) that have created the inequities in the first place,” says Sánchez.

Such a focus comes with a cost, asserts Sánchez, “This individual-level focus doesn’t change the environments and the structural inequality that many low-income, youth of color experience on a day-to-day basis. I am afraid that our field in some ways has continued to reproduce inequality, which I discussed here.” Garringer shares this concern, “We have this tricky issue where folks really want to invest in mentoring to help address big picture societal issues, but we have to square that with the reality that helping handfuls of individuals may not move the needle at larger scales and that the societal-level impact of all this mentoring is constrained, and sometimes negated,  by myriad systemic factors that are powerful and far beyond the control of mentoring programs.”

This has led to sometimes inappropriate measures of what counts as “success” in mentoring. Dr. Renée Spencer, Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the Boston University School of Social Work, notes, “We’ve tried to apply tools best suited to assessing much more focused or targeted interventions and have found mentoring to be lacking. But I think what we should be doing is much more intentionally developing a clear and coherent understanding of what it takes to build and sustain the kinds of relationships that we already know can be so promotive of youth development, or building a solid science of youth mentoring relationships.

Mentoring During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Perhaps the most evident shift in mentoring programs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic was a rapid shift to online programming. This posed both a challenge and opportunity for many organizations. “I saw tremendous commitment and determination on the part of mentors and programs to continue to meet youth needs in spite of serious barriers posed by the pandemic,” explains Dr. Lindsey Weiler. “In some ways,” explains Michael Garringer, “I feel like our field stepped up in a way that perhaps other institutions that work with children and young adults did not. Almost all the practitioners I talked to when the pandemic hit really treated this like a true crisis that needed to be addressed with action, and they built new infrastructure and capacity and reimagined their work on the fly accordingly. They showed real strength and commitment to the youth they serve.” He notes the creation of Virtual Mentoring Portals that assisted with virtual program implementation for service providers without much technology capacity of their own. Dr. Renée Spencer similarly applauds the flexibility and creativity displayed by program staff and volunteers to maintain relationships with youth: “In the face of the significant barriers posed by social distancing, many mentors have kept their eye on the prize by staying connected in whatever ways they can, whether through video calling, social media and other web-based interactive platforms, drive-byes, drop-offs of care packages and notes, and even good old-fashioned letters. I think this has reminded us all just how important it is to know that we have a number of people in our lives who care.”

Similar enthusiasm motivated our European partners to continue their work throughout the pandemic. Szilvia Simon, Community Manager for the European Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring (ECEBM), recalls the creation of the hashtag #keepmentoring that emerged shortly after the onset of the pandemic. “New matches were made online. There was much encouragement and support for mentors to be able to continue their relationship. Practitioners collected and created different tools and activities to support their mentees and mentors. During ECEBM activities, members could exchange these tools and experiences to learn from each other.”

In addition to the long-standing health inequities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 brought overdue attention to the prevalence of racism in U.S. society. “For us in Minnesota,” explains Weiler, “the killing of George Floyd ignited local anti-racist efforts. From individual matches to board meetings at MENTOR MN, conversations about racial injustice, white supremacy, and police violence became a priority.” Dr. Bernadette Sánchez also notes increased considerations around race: “I think more practitioners and researchers are asking questions about the role of mentoring in these larger conversations about structural racism and anti-Black racism specifically. For example, folks are seeing the importance of training mentors on power, privilege, oppression and anti-Black racism. There are also more conversations and questions about how to support mentees as they engage in protests and social activism.”

Michael Garringer notes the complex nature of mentoring across racial difference. “Mentoring is a form of support that can very quickly devolve into notions of saviorism, and particularly white saviorism.” He continues, “Even today I hear occasional language that seems to assume that certain communities inherently lack mentoring or that youth in those communities are essentially problems to be solved. Some of this goes back to the very origins of the movement over a century ago. We are getting much better at framing this work over time, but it can be a challenge to avoid presenting this as something that only certain groups need.” Garringer identifies 2020 as a transition year with renewed antiracist efforts in mentoring: “The field was already moving in a positive direction on some of these issues thanks to groundbreaking work from folks like Torie Weiston-Serdan, Steve Vassor, and many others… I think with this year of protests around police brutality and terrorism of Black communities (among other groups) that there is a renewed interest by our field to further reexamine language and framing to make sure that the ways we describe this work, and why we do it, are not grounded in notions of white supremacy. I have been really heartened by the way I’ve seen practitioners and leaders reflect on this moment and interrogate how we are positioning mentoring and reconsidering the way in which we might be reinforcing harmful power structures as much as offsetting or dismantling them.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had unique consequences for people of all ages. Young people were forced to cope with routine disruptions, school closures, and the loss of nourishing connections. Janet Forbush explains that the need for youth mentoring is as great as ever: “Youngsters have endured trauma during this pandemic. That trauma will not be going away. The trauma and effects on our young people have not yet been measured, but I would venture that the need, the urgent need for mentoring, is unparalleled at this time.”

Looking Forward: Mentoring in the Future

As we anticipate “re-entry” into a post-pandemic world, we know that many aspects of life, and the field of mentoring, will remain permanently changed. It is worthwhile at this juncture to consider hurdles we may face and lessons learned to carry with us into the future.

Dr. Lindsey Weiler hopes that the marked increase in initiatives and conversations centering issues of inequity by race and other minoritized identities will continue with momentum. “I am hopeful that the energy and activity surrounding anti-racism efforts will not wane. I am also optimistic that we, as a field and as individuals, will be held accountable when we fail.” Dr. Bernadette Sánchez agrees, “Although some of us (e.g., Torie Weiston-Serdan, Noelle Hurd) have been talking about this in youth mentoring for a while (see here as an example), I hope these conversations around social and racial justice are sustained in the future as part of regular programming and research. I hope to see more diversity in mentoring researchers and program leaders. I would love to see more people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ pursue and continue to do youth mentoring research. The more diverse our field is, then the more likely that these questions about inequality will be asked and pursued.”

Dr. Sánchez further explains the importance of including youth in efforts to effectively implement anti-racist efforts into mentoring. “This includes youth and adults partnering together in analysis and reflection about structural inequality and in collective action to dismantle systems of oppression, as Belle Liang and colleagues have suggested.” Dr. Renée Spencer echoes this sentiment: “I was so touched and inspired by the Black Youth Town Hall that MENTOR sponsored. The young people who led the panel conversation spoke so passionately and poignantly about their experiences and offered clear-eyed analyses of systemic racism and the long overdue need for real and meaningful change. Mentoring has such an important role to play in working for racial justice by listening to and elevating the voices of youth of color and creating opportunities for them to lead.”

For Samuel McQuillin, Associate Professor and  Director of the School Psychology Program at the University of South Carolina, the past year has pointed to the importance of schools for youth development and mental health care. “In addition to schools being some of the safest places for children to live, play, and learn, they are the primary means that we prepare our future society and they are the largest mental health provider for children.” He hopes that the past year of school disruptions will bring attention to the role schools play as the “primary child mental health care institution.”

Although many are looking forward to more frequent face-to-face encounters when it is safe to do so, some elements of virtual mentoring may remain. “If you’re mentoring a young person, multiple connection points and flexibility is likely a good thing and if technology can help with that, I hope the practices learned during COVID-19 can carry that forward” explains Michael Garringer. Szilvia Simon of the European Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring adds that, even once in-person programming has resumed to its former capacity, virtual programming will continue to open doors for international connections. “Mentoring will be offered online, also in a transnational way. Online events of connectivity and networking can offer new ways to create meaningful relationships, even across borders. This way, we offer young people a chance to keep to their ambitions and to find inspiration.”

Simon adds that relationship quality contributes to the endurance of a mentor-mentee match. Matches made based on similar experiences or identities often result in high quality relationships that can continue in the face of barriers such as time differences or long distance: “When people are matched based on intended impact and experience, they find ways to continue their contact.” Dr. Òscar Prieto-Flores, associate professor of sociology at the University of Girona in Spain, agrees that relationship quality, while not the only necessary component of a successful intervention, is a vital ingredient of any mentoring program. “I agree with Jean Rhodes that the friendship model of mentoring has its pitfalls in providing specific strategies and skills that mentees can learn from. So, programs have to develop more specific strategies lined up with their objectives. Nevertheless, we need to have a balance and not leave bonding strategies especially in these COVID-19 moments. Especially when we know from educational theory that learning is not always internalized without being meaningful and without coming from someone you trust.”

Thank you to our colleagues who contributed their thoughts to this piece:

Dr. Tim Cavell, Professor, Department of Psychological Science at the University of Arkansas

Janet Forbush, Consultant, youth mentoring and advocacy

Michael Garringer, Director of Research and Evaluation at MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership

Dr. Samuel Dale McQuillin , Associate Professor, Director of School Psychology PhD Program, Department of Psychology University of South Carolina

Dr. Òscar Prieto-Flores, associate professor of sociology at the University of Girona (School of Education and Psychology)

Dr. Bernadette Sánchez, Professor, Community Psychology, DePaul University

Szilvia Simon, Community manager, European Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring

Dr. Renée Spencer, Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the Boston University School of Social Work

Dr. Lindsey Weiler Associate Professor at University of Minnesota

Additional experts mentioned in this piece:

Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan

Steve Vassor

Dr. Noelle Hurd

Dr. Belle Liang