Mentoring Young People Can Change Lives And Change Communities—and America Needs Many More Mentors

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By Marvin Krislov, Forbes

I’m a big believer in the power of mentorship. I know I’ve benefited from the support and wisdom of mentors. And, as I’ve written before, I’ve seen how that kind of coaching and support can be both a big benefit for college students and a benefit to those who serve as mentors, too.

That’s why I was so happy to have an opportunity to speak recently with Artis Stevens, the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Stevens has just completed his first year running the organization, and he has seen it through growth and expansion in a challenging time that has only served to emphasize the importance of its work.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is an extraordinary organization. Founded in 1904, it is focused on something very true to our hearts at Pace University: providing young people with opportunity. Initially, it was devised as an alternative to the juvenile justice system for troubled young people in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City; today, it works to build supportive, empowering one-on-one relationships with mentors for more than 100,000 underserved young people each year. They come from 5,000 communities across all 50 states.

“If you think back on your life,” Stevens said to me, “you had an ecosystem of mentors who each gave you something and left something with you.” His group works to create similar relationships for young people who don’t have access to the same kind of ecosystem I did. “Mentorship,” he said, “no matter where it comes from, helps a young person to expand, to explore, to see other things and different backgrounds.”

Today, 55 percent of the young people served by Big Brothers Big Sisters live in poverty, and 60 percent come from single-parent families. Some 71 percent are from communities of color.

These are young people who need our help and our support—whom we need to ensure stay in school, get to college, and earn the degrees that will enable them to have productive, successful lives. It’s not only a moral imperative: America will be successful in the future only if we’re able to tap the full potential of our population. At Pace, we have a long history of transforming lives through the power of higher education. But we also know that first we need to get these students into college.

Over its century-plus, Big Brothers Big Sisters has developed a powerful one-on-one model to help do that. They pair a “Little”—a young person, traditionally aged 5 to 18—with a “Big”—a responsible adult who can serve as a role model. A Big and a Little typically meet at least twice a month, and the average mentorship period lasts about three and a half years, although the near-familial relationship that develops often extends much longer.

Stevens is quick to point out that, for him, college isn’t necessarily the end goal for every Little. He cites the Four Es: some might enroll, some might enlist, some might be employed, some might become entrepreneurs. The goal, he says, is helping a young person find a path to success, which can look different for different people.

But the key, as he made very clear, is the Bigs. The mentors. Big Brothers Big Sisters—and countless other groups doing great work—need help. They need people. Stevens told me that the waiting list at his organization alone is 30,000 names long. That’s 30,000 kids who need mentors, who need role models and encouragement, who need our help to succeed.

I think colleges and universities have a role to play there, encouraging our students, our alumni—both recent alumni and older alumni—to volunteer to work with younger people. It’s a virtuous circle: It can make all the difference in a young person’s life, and it can also help create pathways that bring more students from more communities into our institutions.

It is also unquestionably good for the mentors, another step in that positive feedback loop.

“Most of our volunteers come in, and they think they’re going to make a big impact on the kids’ lives,” Stevens told me. “They learn very fast that the kid is making more of an impact on their own lives.”

There needs to be a financial commitment, too. Stevens wants to find a way to ensure that every Little in his program has scholarship support for college. At Pace, we work hard to enable all students to have access to a college education, regardless of their financial background. But we can use more support, and certainly the government and philanthropies could do more to assist these ambitious kids.

But the first step is finding more mentors. We have all benefited from them, and we can all benefit from the experience of mentoring.

“You don’t have to be perfect” to be a mentor, Stevens said to me. “You just have to be present and persistent in a young person’s life. We know if we can do that right, we can change not only that kid’s life but empower that young person to change the world around them.”

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