Profiles in Mentoring: A Conversation with Dr. Michelle R. Kaufman about e-mentoring and mentoring sexual and gender minority (SGM) youth

Interviewed by Selen Amado

Michelle Kaufman (she/her) is a social psychologist by training whose research focuses on how social factors contribute to health outcomes, particularly for vulnerable populations. Her work explores how gender, sexuality, race, and socio-economic status contribute to disparities in outcomes including HIV, substance use, interpersonal violence, and mental health. She designs, implements, and evaluates interventions to decrease such disparities. She has worked in many regions of the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and urban parts of the U.S. to understand and eradicate health disparities. Her more recent work explores how technology can be incorporated into mentoring to promote the health of adolescents and young adults. In this interview, we asked her about her insights on utilizing technology to promote supportive mentoring relationships and how mentorships can improve outcomes in sexual and gender minority youth.

Chronicle: Can you tell our readers about your background and the research you are currently working on?

Michelle R. Kaufman: I am a social psychologist by training with interest in health disparities, which is how I became faculty in a school of public health. I first became a mentor when I was in grad school, and it eventually became the topic of my dissertation—how to get mentors to talk with mentees about sexual health topics. While I have done a lot of research on health disparities outside of its connection to mentoring over the past 12+ years since I earned my PhD, I spent the past five years working on how to combine mentoring with digital technology as a way to reduce health disparities. I believe technology and social media can be used in health promoting ways, and my most recent research has focused on how to do that via mentoring apps and social media interventions that target young people.

Chronicle: What are your thoughts on the use of technology to assist mentors in their role of supporting mentees?

Michelle R. Kaufman: Young people largely communicate using technology. With my own mentees over the years, some of our most meaningful (and sensitive) conversations have been through texts or direct messages on social media. It is essential for mentors to use technology in their role of supporting mentees, as this is a key way to meet today’s young people where they are. If a mentor is not adequately familiar with social media, mobile apps, streaming media, and digital gaming, they are not going to be able to fully connect with a young person.

Chronicle: How can mentoring be used to improve outcomes for sexual and gender minority (SGM) youth?

Michelle R. Kaufman: First, SGM youth have historically been excluded from mentoring programs, particularly SGM youth of color. While that has certainly improved in recent years, the mentoring field still has a way to go to convince SGM youth—particularly those of color—that a mentor connected with a formal mentoring program is someone they can trust. While stigmas against SGM people are decreasing in (American) society, young people still face stigma from institutions, sometimes peers, and too many times their families. Mentors can help them to explore their identities in a safe space and connect them to other mentors and supportive settings where they can grow to be their authentic selves. If young people can live an authentic life without fear of stigma and discrimination because of their sexual and gender identities, they will naturally have better outcomes in their academics, health, relationships, and adult life. I see mentors as serving a key role in that goal of generating authentic identities in young people.

Chronicle: Where do we go from here with mentoring research?

Michelle R. Kaufman: Lately I have been largely focused on looking at the true impact of e-mentoring as compared to traditional in-person models or no mentoring at all. Not all youth have access to the types of mentors they need in their own communities. E-mentoring can help bring mentoring to youth with various identities, health conditions, youth who are living in rural settings, or youth who are seeking a career path that is not common in their own families or communities. If we can produce research that clearly illustrates the potential impact of e-mentoring, we can then decide as a field where resources should go to help those youth in need of specialized mentoring that may not be filled by in-person models.

Find Michelle R. Kaufman on ResearchGate


Twitter handle: @mkaufman99