Soledad O’Brien had many great mentors throughout her life and career ― now, she wants to pay it forward.
The award-winning journalist spoke with The Huffington Post recently about her role as the host of the fifth annual American Graduate Day on Saturday, and her personal investment in the initiative’s mission to spotlight the power of mentorship.
“Any single person who has been successful, if you ask them what made you successful, at some point they get to the person who helped them ― the mentor,” she told The Huffington Post. “The same is true of me.”
The 49-year-old said she understands first-hand the positive effects a mentor can have on a young person’s life and career.
“One of my best mentors was a woman named Jeanne Blake who I worked with at my very first job at WBZ-TV in Boston where I was just starting out as a production assistant,” O’Brien told HuffPost. “I remember writing something and I got the date of Martin Luther King [Jr.]’s death wrong ― which, by the way, I’ll never forget it. And I remember she just sat there and said, ‘It feels bad, doesn’t it?’ She wasn’t freaking out. She wasn’t screaming at me. She was just very thoughtful, like, ‘There’s gonna be a next time. You’re not gonna get fired for this. But what do we learn from this?’ And I think that really taught me the idea of always going back to the ‘Wow, this sucks, but what did we learn?’”
The “Matter of Fact” host has since launched the Soledad O’Brien and Brad Raymond Starfish Foundation, which was created after Hurricane Katrina, alongside her husband, Bradley. The foundation provides disadvantaged young women with the financial assistance and mentorship necessary to help them with going to and finishing college.
O’Brien said over the years she’s gone on to acquire a wide variety of formal and informal mentors, ranging from her relatives to professional colleagues and peers. She credits her experiences with each of them with helping her to gain a clearer idea of how to be a good mentor to others.
“A mentor helps you look at your life from 35,000 feet,” she explained to HuffPost.
“I think that mentors really teach people… about resilience. Most of my mentoring experiences have been about saying to somebody ‘That happened to me, too, and you know what I did? I stuck it out.’”
Though mentorship can be valuable for everyone, O’Brien said she recognizes that mentors are especially crucial for young people whose families and communities are ill-equipped to provide them with the financial and moral resources necessary to graduate from high school or college.
O’Brien shared an example of a Latina whose mother questioned whether she was cut out for college when her grades in a class started to slip.
“When she did badly in a biology class her mom said to her, ‘Well, maybe you don’t belong there.’ [Do] you know what my mother would have said? She would have said, ‘You obviously need to stop partying and start going to class.’ There was no expectation that I wouldn’t be successful. In this girl’s case, she was the first in her family to go to college. Her parents weren’t sure she could be successful. So sometimes you need a mentor on the other side who’s like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Here’s what you need to do to be successful.’ It’s not magic. It literally is doable, but it’s a lot of work to get someone to do it.”
Mentoring, along with other research-based interventions, is an effective tool in increasing graduation rates, especially among at-risk youth, according to a recent study commissioned by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.
It’s with this in mind that O’Brien said she’s looking forward to hosting American Graduate Day on Saturday, adding, “Just raising awareness is hugely important. But also giving some really smart, thoughtful solutions to how you help people make a difference.”