Matt Hagler is a 4th-year doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at UMass Boston. He graduated from Sewanee, the University of the South, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude with undergraduate degrees in psychology and English literature. Before starting graduate school, he spent a year living in Muğla, Turkey on a Fulbright student fellowship and served as a project manager for the Life Paths Appalachian Research Center. Matt’s current research is supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and focuses on the potential for mentoring relationships to both widen and bridge socioeconomic disparities. His clinical interests include working with adolescents and young adults on issues of identity, relationships, and adjustment, as well as early detection and intervention for risk of serious mental illness.
Chronicle (C:) Tell us about your work and why you are interested in it?
Matt Hagler (MH): I am broadly interested in youth mentoring relationships – both formally assigned and naturally occurring – and their compensatory and complementary influence on youth development. In my work, I try to examine the psychological processes of mentoring from an ecological perspective. I think a lot about how mentoring – particularly natural mentoring – has the potential to both extend and reduce structural inequality. Although I am training as a clinical psychologist, I identify with a clinical-community psychology model and am increasingly influenced by allied fields of sociology, economics, and political science.
C: Given your research and experience, can you tell the Chronicle readers more about the extent you think mentoring relationships enhance students’ positive help-seeking beliefs and trust in nonparent adults?
MH: Help-seeking beliefs and expectations are key components to a theoretical model I’m developing (Hagler, 2018) and testing empirically in my dissertation. I really started to think about this when I started working with the Add Health dataset, which provides a unique opportunity to examine adult outcomes of mentoring relationships during adolescence an early adulthood. Using a propensity score matching approach to more rigorously control for confounding variables, Jean Rhodes and I found evidence for long-lasting differences between youth who did and did not report having a weak tie mentor during adolescence (Hagler & Rhodes, 2018). Weak tie mentors are adults like teachers, coaches, and religious leaders, who likely are located outside of young people’s social circle. Participants (now in middle adulthood) who reported having this type of mentor in adolescence had higher incomes, education, and civic engagement compared to those without mentors or those with “strong tie” mentors (like extended family members). We’re talking about one relationship that still seemed to have a tangible socioeconomic impact well into adulthood.
I thought this was remarkable, and started to wonder if the mentor was actually a proxy indicator of the youth’s tendency to find mentors as they moved through developmental stages and settings. That is, youth who had a mentor out of their family before college may have also found a mentor when they went to college, and then when they went on the job market, and then as they progressed in their career. My theory is the positive help-seeking beliefs and expectations enable young people to continually approach and build mentoring relationships. So if we can instill those things early on by facilitating positive help-seeking experiences in schools and communities, we can empower youth to build a dynamic network of mentoring relationships. Of course, we also need to address structural barriers, which I’ll get to later.
That’s the sociological process, but I also think there is something going on at a psychological level. For youth, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, asking for help may be perceived as threatening. We have this distinctly American, individualistic, “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps rhetoric” that you really should be able to do it alone. I think this message is amplified when it comes to youth from marginalized racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, whose sense of inclusion and belonging in educational systems might be vulnerable. Fearing the confirmation of negative stereotypes, marginalized youth might not want to ask for help. Due to prior experiences of discrimination and oppression, marginalized youth might not even know that they can ask for help, or do not expect help to be provided to them if they ask. (Sadly, they may even be right about that in some settings).
I think mentoring can provide a corrective experience. In a relationship with a helpful, responsive mentor, youth can learn (1) that they can ask for help, (2) that their request for help will be met, (3) that asking for help can be beneficial, and (4) that asking for help is not a threat to their competency. It may be especially influential if the young person learns that they can look beyond their immediate social circle for help, lending power to weak ties. Thus, I think that having a positive mentoring experiences has the potential to fundamentally alter youth’s beliefs about if, why, and how to seek help from adults. Therefore, the long-lasting effects we see associated with a single mentoring relationship in adolescence may not be exclusive to that one relationships, but rather the network of mentoring relationships they youth built throughout their development.
C: I see you have done extensive research on natural mentoring, can you tell the Chronicle readers why it is important to know more about this form of mentoring, especially with its intersectionality with other demographic characteristics (i.e. SES)?
The research I discussed above suggests that natural mentoring can be a powerful economic vehicle. If natural mentoring were equally distributed in terms of the number and diversity of mentors, it would have the potential to chip away at the vast economic and educational inequality we have in the U.S. But that’s not the case. In another analysis of Add Health data, we found that youth form low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely that their more privileged counterparts to connect with mentors, particularly the weak-tie mentors associated with better economic and educational outcomes (Raposa, Erickson, Hagler, & Rhodes, 2017). This is a phenomenon that Robert Putnam also discusses in his fantastic book, Our Kids. It is the already privileged kids who are being mentored by teachers, executives, lawyers, and doctors. So I think it is important to look at these trends because natural mentoring actually may be an area in which advantage and disadvantaged are being perpetuated rather than reduced.
C: What do you think are the barriers to youth for low SES background to obtain weak-tie mentors? How do you think we can overcome them / get these youths access to weak-tie mentors?
MH: The barriers are vast and exist at multiple ecological levels. As Putnam points out, we live in an increasingly segregated society in terms of race and social class. Disadvantaged families live in in disadvantaged neighborhood, and disadvantaged kids attend disadvantaged schools. In every domain, resources (including mentoring) are concentrated such that the advantaged get further ahead. For example, teachers in better-resourced schools have more time and energy engage in informal mentoring activities, while those in poor schools are overburdened by large class sizes, unsafe conditions, and mounting pressure to bring up standardized test scores. Under-resourced schools and communities have less funding and support for sports, arts, and leadership extracurricular activities that would be fertile grounds for adult-youth connection. Thus, by promoting the more equitable distribution of educational, community, recreational, and residential resources, we can promote the more equitable distribution of mentors.
Zooming in, ecologically speaking, we have seen an increasing enthusiasm for youth-initiated mentoring, which is an innovative approach that empowers youth, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to seek out and cultivate their own mentoring relationships. In addition to “stocking the pond,” YIM “teaches youth to fish.” I think YIM is a really promising strategy that can support, but not replace, progressive policy reform.
C: Relatedly, how do you think that strong-tie mentors (or arguably parents) can be “enhanced” such that they can resemble some functions of weak-tie mentors?
MH: The reason we have kids and families with low SES in the first place is because of structural inequality. Socioeconomic status is shocking stagnant in the U.S. Our society has been constructed and maintained to help the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, even if we mask this inequality under the illusion of the “American Dream.” Low SES kids benefit so much from the infusion of social capital from weak tie mentors because their parents and family have been excluded from educational and occupational opportunities to improve their standing.
So, again, the real answer to this question is to fight against structural inequality and to promote policies that eliminate the barriers to socioeconomic mobility. These barriers are vast and wide-ranging, from escalating costs of health care and higher education, to minimum wage that is not livable, to voter suppression efforts, to our racist, overly punitive criminal justice system. If these barriers were removed, weak tie mentors would not be needed – at least not from the remedial perspective in which I am framing them. I think we should strive for mentors to be complementary, not compensatory, meaning that their primary role should be to enhance development rather than try to make up for basic opportunities that our “free society” should already be providing.
OK, I felt like I needed to say all that, but I also recognize that these top-down reform efforts will not happen overnight and will be supported by more bottom-up efforts to empower parents and families. In the same way that youth initiated mentoring interventions can provide youth with tangible networking skills, I know some researchers are starting to think about parent-initiated mentoring, which might support parents in diversifying their own social networks and those of their children. However, these parent- or family-level interventions need not even be that specific to mentoring or networking. Simply connecting low-income adults with accessible educational and occupational opportunities – adult learning programs, job skills training, etc. – will empower them to build up their own social networks and capital, which they can then pass on to their kids.