Teaching to fish: New study highlights the value of building students’ social capital

By Jean Rhodes

A growing number of innovative mentoring programs have emerged in recent years that involve both “teaching youth to fish” for mentors (i.e., to recruit natural mentors) and “stocking the pond” (i.e., expanding the availability of high-social capital adults in marginalized youth’s lives). For years, the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, an intensive quasi-military program for adolescents who have dropped out of high school, has successfully deployed the youth-initiated mentoring (YIM) approach. And a recent meta-analysis shows positive effects for this and related YIM models. One such model is Connected Scholars.

In Connected Scholars (CS), an extension of YIM, high school and college students are provided with the strategies and skills to cultivate a network of supportive adults, rather than a single mentoring relationship. Compared to incoming college students who are provided only with information, incoming students who are assigned to a four-session intervention in which they learn how to recruit faculty and staff support have stronger ties with faculty members, higher grade-point averages, and less help avoidance at the end of their freshman year, according to a 2017 study (click here to access this 4-session online course). Other networking approaches help students choose a non-parental adult to attend skill-building workshops with them or help to connect youth who are aging out of (or at risk of entering) the foster care system.

Led by Sarah Schwartz and her team, we recently published a rigorous, randomized evaluation of a semester-long, one-credit version of Connected Scholars (CS). The course focused on teaching students how to identify potential sources of support and how to cultivate relationships with mentors, faculty, and other professionals who can help them advance their academic and career goals.  This evaluation aimed to evaluate the impact of the CS course on students’ attitudes and behaviors related to help-seeking and networking, social capital and mentoring relationships, and academic outcomes. Compared to the control group, students in the treatment group reported

  • improved attitudes towards help-seeking
  • increased help-seeking behavior
  • higher levels of social capital and mentoring support
  • increased academic self-efficacy
  • decreased academic cognitive engagement

First-generation college students benefited more than continuing-generation students in certain areas

Benefits were less for Black, Latinx, and/or Asian students in areas related to networking, suggesting that there may have been systemic barriers not addressed in the intervention.

Despite these limitations, this study highlights the benefits of a novel approach to recruiting mentors and building social capital. As we note, the results demonstrate that it is possible to increase levels of social capital and mentoring support by providing skill development in the context of a credit-bearing college course.

This week! To learn more about this ground-breaking study from the pioneer in this field, Professor Sarah Schwartz, who will be presenting: Teaching Students to Recruit Mentors and Build Networks of Support. This presentation will cover strategies to help college students to identify, recruit, and maintain relationships with mentors and build networks of support. The presentation will discuss research on Connected Scholars and will allow participants to explore how they may integrate strategies into their own programming. To sign up, follow this link or view all upcoming webinars in the series.