Profiles in Mentoring: A conversation with Julie Gehring

Written by Jelle de Graaf and Vera van den Berg

Julie Gehring is the Director of Mentoring at Mother Caroline Academy in Boston. Mother Caroline Academy is a private, tuition-free school for girls in grades 4 to 8 from families with limited means. At the academy she works to match girls in grade 7 and 8 with mentors from the greater Boston area to help them as they transition into competitive high schools.

In late March, Gehring was awarded a two-week fellowship grant through Eurasia’s Social Expertise Exchange Program to work with Big Brothers Big Sisters Moscow and St. Petersburg Russia. Her fellowship work looked to improve mentorship practices in Russia and the United States through adoption of best practices from both sides. In particular, the project focused on increasing the longevity of US mentor/mentee relationships and improving the methods of training Russian program staff and mentors with a focus on mentorship goal setting and mentor/guardian relationship building.


What was your personal and professional motivation to go to Russia and work alongside with practitioners of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Russia?

From a young age I have always been fascinated with Russian culture. In the early 90’s one of my school teachers traveled over to the country and my family had the opportunity to host two exchange students from Russia during the summer. Throughout my teenage years I always kept in touch with my friends from Russia through e-communication. These early impressions helped to shape my values growing up and it was always a goal of mine to visit The Russian Federation, though I never thought it was going to happen! I can remember in the 1990’s watching television specials about the Russian orphanages on the program ABC 20/20. As an adoptee from the states, having the opportunity to train mentors and program staff that work with mentees in the orphanages was one of my main motivations for the trip. I have reached a point in my career that I was able to spread my knowledge about best mentoring practices to a group of individuals that make an incredible impact on the children of the Russian Federation. These children deserve well-trained mentors ready to give their undivided attention during the time they spend together. I wanted to help train the mentors and program staff on new ways to make training effective and meaningful.

What was the purpose of your trip and in what way did you prepare for it?

Last year I traveled to the Netherlands to present a workshop on “Best Practices in Youth Mentoring” at the European Mentoring Summit. During the summit I met the Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters Moscow. She told me that there was a grant set-up through the Eurasia Foundation to help bridge relations between the Russian Federation and the States. In October she sent me a link to the independent social expertise exchange grant and I applied. I had to go through many rounds of essays, interviews and screenings with the staff at the Eurasia Foundation. Finally, in late January I was selected as the winter fellow to travel over to Moscow.


Given the geo-political climate of our two countries I was nervous at first to ask my boss and notify my family about the fellowship. I had planted the seed early for them, but I knew how competitive the process was so I didn’t tell them again until I was really sure that I was going! My boss, Ed Hudner, Head of School at Mother Caroline Academy, couldn’t have been any more supportive. He was the last one I told and gave me a lot of encouragement. Honestly, from meeting and working with the people of the Russian Federation, I constantly thought to myself on the trip “this doesn’t feel like two countries that dislike one another.” I had many reactions from people saying “they would never go” and I can’t wait to return [to the Russian Federation]. I really hope there is a possibility to do more work with BBBS Russia because we only scratched the surface.


What were some of the things you were worried about traveling to Moscow and St. Petersburg?


I was worried about the language barrier and taking the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg alone. The language barrier wasn’t a problem; English is now taught starting in elementary school so most people under 40 spoke fluent English. I loved the way I was stretched to communicate with others. The saying that 70 percent of language is nonverbal is very true. In some instances, I had servers or retailers convinced I spoke the language with the few Russian words in my vocabulary.  When I struggled, technology was very helpful.  For example, I used Google Translate to set-up a new chip in my phone and to navigate a taxi ride to East Moscow to present at the College of Business and Economic Studies.


What did you learn from BBBS of Russia and what learning experiences did you take back home?


Some key takeaways: mentors go through 17 hours of training before being matched. During a Team meeting, they discussed ways to get buy-in from a business corporate social responsibility (CSR) team. To achieve results they brainstormed ideas to identify possible restaurants to host a cooking class for their April Mentee/Mentor Match. In my program we spend the time on creating events, they rely on CSR and volunteers to host the events. This type of strategy allows more time and resources to be allocated on mentor training. I was also impressed by the monthly training of mentors through a series of Master Classes. Next year I would like to incorporate more training sessions for current mentors including topics related to sexual minority youth, cultural competency, teen stress and self-care.


One of the sessions I learned was to use “Art Therapy” as a tool to train mentors. Many of the mentors at BBBS are trained psychologists. During the session participants are given 10 minutes to silently draw a tree. After everyone completes the exercise statements about the branches, leaves, roots and placement of additional items such as animals or fruits are discussed. Each statement is intended to analyze a person’s strengths or weaknesses. At the end of the message the instructor asks the mentor if they agree with the statements or disagrees. This led to a great discussion. At the end of the discussion we all placed the trees together to create a forest to symbolize our community. Lastly, we pointed out that all of the trees were different. This demonstrated collectiveness and the need to work together as a forest to help each other and our mentees to as many resources as possible. I am excited to continue to use this training and I believe it will help as we build our new cohorts of mentors and mentees in the fall. I also can use this with guardians.


I also had the opportunity to visit a revitalized artist district for a mentor/mentee match event. Mentors came together with their friends in the advertising, make-up, fashion and food blogging industry. They taught mentees about the importance of brand image. They referenced the brands of the Coca-Cola Polar Bear, Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Putin and Snoop Dog. The mentees were very engaged and it reminded me of an event Mother Caroline produced last month called Girl Power. The main difference of our event was the mentees were involved with presenting some of the materials. This technique of Critical Mentoring and using Voice and Choice is a deeply woven into our program at Mother Caroline Academy and I was able to talk about this topic with both BBBS offices.


What did you teach BBBS of Russia regarding your experiences in mentoring?


During this project I learned how to find my voice in my profession of youth mentoring. For the past three years I have developed, trained and implemented a quality based mentor program in Boston using knowledge from researchers and a partnership with Mass Mentoring Partnership through the “Elements of Effective Practice.” While in Moscow and St. Petersburg I presented my knowledge of the “Elements of Effective Practice” and how I use them in my organization. We then spent time looking at the host organization, and I taught them how to develop or rework strategies from the tools I use in my program to be applicable to their programs. Going through this exercise was very rewarding. Going into the experience, I wanted to spend some time on Goal Setting Sheets with Mentors and Mentees. However, after spending the first day at the BBBS Moscow office I realized that they needed a deeper training for new mentors. I trained the Case Managers on how to navigate a vignette of a mentee that was involved with Mother Caroline Academy’s Mentor Program. Through the vignette we “unpacked” the challenges facing the mentee and reworked the impressions into positive assets.

This story and training style was helpful for the Case Managers. Typically in the training, mentors recognize the negative things happening in the young person’s life and neglect some of the positive assets of the young person.  In the workshop we addressed the positive and negative things happening and brought to light how a mentor should view the mentee. Both offices agreed that they would take this training, adapt the vignette to be applicable to one of their mentees and use it for future trainings.


I had candid conversations with mentors about their mentees. We worked on strategies to better communicate with the head masters of the orphanages and school administration. In St. Petersburg I spent one day with a mentor. Through my conversation with this mentor, I got a firsthand look on the challenges of mentor recruitment and involvement. For example, since the people of the Russian Federation’s social sphere remains so close it is hard to network and people are often judged on “why they are mentors and not having children.” At the same time since the Soviet Days were not that long ago, the mentality of stability and where they are going next often creates a challenge in mentoring


Were there any other similarities between America and The Russian Federation organizations?


The Executive Director of St. Petersburg and I spoke about similarities, challenges and struggles of event attendance, board development and sponsorships both countries faced. We brainstormed about opportunities that could be less expensive such as hosting a business breakfast instead of a fancy dinner. I was very impressed with the awareness campaign that Big Brother Big Sisters Moscow hosted via volunteers interested in creating further exposure for the organization. Last year in St. Petersburg, they created a 24-hour outdoor music festival. They also partnered with local photographers to capture mentees and mentors during all of the seasons. The photos were raw and beautiful. Soon they will host an exhibition of the photos in a well-known art gallery to create more awareness about their program.


In what way can mentoring programs across the globe benefit from collaborating with each other?

When mentor programs collaborate from across the globe, they benefit by gaining new tools and resources from an entirely different perspective. Sometimes we get stuck in a routine that works but could be tweaked a little to make better improvements to help the youth or train mentors better. Often times we think we are the only program with a certain issue and when we can see that the issue occurs globally there is a very big “A-ha” moment that takes place. The exchange of ideas has the opportunity to impact the youth directly. For example, when I came home I spent time with our mentees explaining my trip and sharing the new cultural experiences I had the opportunity to take in while in the Russian Federation.

At the end of the day our hearts are big in this profession and together we both have goals of improving the lives of the youth. I found a lot of value in learning about the similarities of our programs and bringing new measurement and training exercises to our program.  On a cultural level, it is also important to stretch yourself and visit foreign places to form your own personal judgements. Russia is a beautiful country with people willing to help in any way possible. I am so thankful for the opportunity to work with Big Brother Big Sisters Moscow and St. Petersburg.