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by Venessa Marks

I clearly remember the first non-familial adult who took an interest in my development. Mrs. Hunt was blunt when she told me that I was not applying myself in her English class, and that I could do better. Then, as I transferred to a new high school, another teacher advocated for me to receive advanced placement, despite my grades being borderline. As a young professional, supervisors and more experienced colleagues have taken the time to counsel me, to open up new opportunities, and have even helped me land new jobs. It’s clear that throughout my education and into my career, informal mentors have pushed me to achieve more than I ever could have without their support.

Many of us share this same story. Yet, unfortunately, a large proportion of the youth who need mentors the most never receive that support. According to MENTOR’s new study, The Mentoring Effect, an estimated 9 million at-risk young people will reach adulthood without connecting to a mentor of any kind – informal or formal. Further, the survey also showed that with each additional risk factor, a young person is less likely to connect with an informal mentor.

These statistics certainly speak to the need for formal mentoring programs, but I think there is an even louder cry emerging from these numbers.

The landmark evaluation of the Big Brothers Big Sisters community-based mentoring program helped to establish that formal mentoring can positively influence a young person’s relationship with his or her parent, and recent research conducted by Drs. Jean Rhodes, Carla Herrera, and Sarah Schwartz on school-based mentoring has broadened these benefits to include an improved relationship with teachers.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America continues to see these relational benefits emerge in our internal evaluation work as well.  Beyond formal mentoring programs, we also know from the work of Dr. Noelle Hurd, Dr. Bernadette Sanchez, and others that naturally-forming positive relationships with caring adults can have a valuable impact on youth throughout their journey into adulthood and beyond.

Clearly, formal mentoring programs have the potential to influence how a young person develops and nurtures positive relationships with adults…but what if we were to seek this outcome with even greater intentionality? What if “being mentored” wasn’t just something we provided, but also a skill we taught? What would it look like for us to more intentionally build the confidence and the skills of our mentees to help them cultivate natural mentors throughout their lives? What if mentors saw themselves not as the sole non-family support, but as a connector to other, additional positive relationships in the present and into the future?

In the research field, we often discuss whether mentoring is a “vitamin” that only impacts youth while services are rendered, or an “inoculation” that, once received, forever changes one’s life trajectory. While many of us might fervently believe the latter, evidence of impact sustainability is hard to come by. But perhaps there is a different way of approaching this dilemma. Perhaps we could better sustain our impact if youth were consistently equipped to cultivate natural mentoring relationships after leaving our programs.

Together with our counterparts in Canada and researchers including Drs. Jean Rhodes, Sarah Schwartz, Tim Cavell, and Noelle Hurd, the Research, Innovation, and Growth team at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is interested in exploring these ideas; taking an opportunity to think beyond the often time-bound constraints of a formal mentoring relationship and towards future informal mentoring experiences for our youth.

Published by The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring March 4, 2014