When College students mentor high-risk youth: Two important lessons

summarized by Stella Kanchewa

hm_rotate_1Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 69-78.

Introduction: Credit bearing service-learning experiences for college students can mutually engender growth among students who participate within these courses and the communities they serve. Students’ experiences within these courses encourage increasing awareness of social inequities (e.g., systemic oppression, marginalization and privilege), particularly biases and assumptions about youth from culturally diverse backgrounds, while increasing communities’ social capital. This mutual social exchange may be more readily apparent within service-learning programs that focus on mentoring relationships in which college mentors are paired with youth from diverse communities; however, there is limited research exploring university-based service-learning mentoring programs, particularly aspects of the mentoring relationships within these programs that affect change. The current study examines college student mentor’s expectations, attitudes and engagement within their mentoring experience through a university-based service learning mentoring program.

Method: Participants were 32 college students at Vanderbilt University enrolled in a 16 week, semester long service-learning elective course entitled, “High-Poverty Youth: Improving Outcomes.” The goals of the course are to:

  • Improve outcomes for youth attending high-poverty high schools through mentoring and to increase participating university students’ awareness of (a) the effects of poverty on youth and (b) economic disparities across neighborhoods, schools, races, and ethnicities (p.70).

The program engages in evidence-based practices including training and support for mentors, and expectations regarding the frequency of contact with mentees. Mentors met with their high school mentees 1-2 times per week, with a minimum of 22 hours required for the duration of the course. Mentors also attended the course seminar twice per week. The majority of mentors were white females from middle-class/upper-middle class backgrounds. Mentees were high school students from low-income, high need schools with graduation rates below 50%.

In addition to class discussions and focus groups, mentors kept reflective journals in which they outlined their expectations for the course and reflected on their mentoring experience. More specifically, mentors completed pre- and post- mentoring responses to eight open-ended questions, which were analyzed qualitatively in the current study.

Results: Mentor’s responses pre- and post-mentoring fell into six major themes including:

  • Expectations for learning about poverty: A significant number of mentors’ pre- and post- reflections related to this expectation. In addition, in their post-reflections most mentors indicated that they had learned about the challenges and marginalization associated with poverty.
  • Goals for forming mentoring relationships: The second highest number of pre- and post- responses related to mentors’ desires and efforts to form genuine, ongoing relationships with their mentees.  In their post-reflections, all but four students indicated that they had formed such relationships, and intended to maintain them beyond the duration of the class (e.g., through emails, lunch meetings, going to the mall).
  • Seeking friendship rather than providing academic support: Mentors intended to and reported that they developed friendships with their mentees that were high in trust, consistency and accountability. Relative to academic support (e.g., e.g., test prep, tutoring, college application process assistance), mentors served as role models, provided guidance and emotional support.
  • Challenging negative stereotypes and assumptions: After the mentoring experience, the majority of mentors reported that previously held negative assumptions and stereotypes they held (e.g., youth’s goals/aspirations, motivation) had changed, and they had an increased awareness of social inequities and systemic barriers.
  • Increasing university student commitment to civic participation: The mentoring experience not only increased mentors’ awareness of social inequities, it also fostered active commitment to civic engagement and social justice issues.
  • Learning about strategies to address poverty: Prior to mentoring, all the students wanted to learn about ways to address inequities prevalent within their mentee’s schools/community; however, post-mentoring, none of the students felt that they had learned any strategies. The authors note that this may in part relate to students’ expectations of “quick fix” solutions rather than solutions that acknowledge the complexity of the challenges encountered by youth in high-need schools and communities.

Conclusions and Implications: In this qualitative study, Hughes and colleagues explored the attitudes and engagement of college students participating in a service-learning mentoring program. Several themes captured mentors’ experiences including the desire to forge ongoing relationships rooted in friendships with their mentees, and learn about as well as challenge social inequities.

The findings from this study, while specific to the Vanderbilt Mentoring Program have implications for youth mentoring. First, these findings highlight the importance of encouraging mentors to acknowledge and continually reflect on assumptions and biases regarding the experiences of youth from diverse backgrounds (e.g., developmental stage, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability status) that may be unconsciously brought into the relationship with their mentee, which can shape expectations as well as the course of the relationship. Second, these findings suggest factors that may be important for long-term engagement among college students who represent a typically transient volunteer pool. For instance, while the researchers did not follow-up beyond the scope of the program, it is remarkable to note that a majority of the mentors reported intentions to maintain the relationship developed with their mentee. It may be that service-learning may be an initial step towards long-term engagement with mentoring for college students who might otherwise not consider volunteering for a program.