Ancient Advice

Researchers size up whether mentoring really offers the wisdom of the ages.

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One of the oldest and most well-known mentoring programs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, turns 75 this year. But the original Big Brother has been around much longer--since the days of ancient Greece, in fact.

He was a character named Mentor in The Odyssey, the adventures of the wandering hero Odysseus. Although Mentor, a trusted friend of Odysseus, appears only briefly in Homer's epic poem, he plays a pivotal role, providing advice and encouragement to Odysseus' son Telemachus during his absence.

Over the past two decades, dozens of mentoring programs have been launched to link young people with caring adults who can help them weather the stormy seas of growing up. They've generated newspaper headlines and won praise from politicians on both the left and right. The most successful ones have grown quickly--and inspired program spinoffs--to keep pace with a seemingly ever-increasing demand.

The I Have a Dream Foundation, begun in 1981 with one entrepreneur's pledge to help a class of 6th graders make it to college, has expanded to a national program serving more than 10,000 children. More recently, civic leaders in Kansas City have mounted a campaign to recruit 35,000 mentors for the city's young people. And at the Million Man March in Washington last fall, controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan urged black men across the nation to volunteer as tutors and mentors in their local public schools.

The notion of using one-to-one relationships to help children overcome economic and social barriers has a simple appeal to it. But researchers have found that establishing effective mentoring programs is far more complicated than many first realized. In fact, some findings suggest that even the most touted programs have met with mixed results.

Even advocates of mentoring caution that volunteer efforts by untrained individuals can have only limited success. And they warn that campaigns to generate large numbers of mentors over a short period of time are likely to fall short by emphasizing quantity instead of building effective relationships.

"These people have no idea what it takes to recruit people, screen them, and ensure they show up and are a positive influence on kids," one expert laments about these splashy recruitment efforts. "They get this enormous public relations benefit, but there is no follow-through and delivery."

A Long History

Mentoring has taken many different forms through the years. In medieval times, young apprentices learned their craft from expert artisans. These guilds served as a kind of mentoring network, says Erwin Flaxman, the director of the Center for Urban Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In the late 18th century, charitable societies took hold in many cities during the "friendly visiting" movement, an effort to cultivate uplifting relationships between middle-class volunteers and poor Americans.

The mentors of today do everything from take children to museums or help out with homework to offer emotional support after a death in the family. Their level of involvement in a child's life varies with the many roles they play: tutor, friend, substitute parent, or just someone to talk to.

What spurred mentoring for at-risk youngsters to emerge as a popular movement over the past two decades was the increasing isolation of young people from caring adults, writes Marc Freedman in his 1993 book. The Kindness of Strangers: Adult Mentors, Urban Youth and the New Voluntarism grew out of interviews with 300 mentors, young people, scholars, and youth workers. Not only are families breaking up, Freedman concludes, but nonparental role models--neighbors, coaches, and clergy, for example--are increasingly absent from young people's lives.

Emmy E. Werner, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Davis, has identified the presence of a mentor as a key factor in resilience, the ability of individuals to succeed in the face of challenging circumstances. In her 30-year longitudinal study of 500 poor children in Hawaii, Werner found that many of those who managed to escape poverty had a nonparent neighborhood adult who played a significant role in their lives.

Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, reached the same conclusion in Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get To College, a collection of 24 case studies of young people who went to college despite formidable obstacles. As he and his co-author, Jana Nidiffer, listened to their subjects' stories, they found that having a mentor was a common thread.

"What it took to get them to college was a sense of self-worth and some sense of the importance of education," Levine says. "When you ask how that would occur, the best way of doing that is through individuals. You certainly don't show people they have self-worth through mailers or television commercials."

And anyone can be a mentor, Levine is quick to add. Two of the mentors featured in his book helped send students to Ivy League universities even though they themselves had only a 4th-grade education or less. "One, whose daughter ended up going to Harvard, had never heard of Harvard and had no idea where Massachusetts was," he recalls. "She couldn't speak English. She was an illegal immigrant. She never married. But she was someone who had the capacity to make that difference."

Levine points to the I Have a Dream Foundation as one of the nation's most successful and renowned intervention programs. In 1981, a wealthy entrepreneur named Eugene Lang made a spontaneous promise to a class of 6th graders at his alma mater in Harlem. If they finished high school, he would pay for their college tuition. But the key that opened the door to higher education was six years of guidance, companionship, and cajoling from Lang and the social worker he hired.

Of Lang's original class of "Dreamers," about 90 percent have graduated from high school or passed the General Educational Development test. But even with the intensive intervention, only eight of the original 61 have graduated from a four-year college so far. Still, Lang is not dismayed. In the end, he expects 70 percent to have completed at least two years of postsecondary education.

Today, more than 140 I Have a Dream programs are up and running across the country. And that doesn't count the untold numbers of unofficial spinoffs. A 1990 General Accounting Office study reported that 42,496 students were participating in some form of tuition-guarantee program.

Mixed Results

But where the I Have a Dream Foundation and many of its spinoffs have succeeded, just as many programs have not fared so well.

Recruiting, training, and matching mentors for Linking Up, a Cornell University pilot program, "proved much more difficult than we anticipated and required more time and more staff resources than we had expected," write Cornell University researchers Stephen F. and Mary Agnes Hamilton. The program never reached its goal of 80 pairs of youths and mentors, and only half the participants met regularly.

And a seven-year study of Project raise--a Baltimore mentoring program based on the I Have a Dream model--found that the program had little or no positive effect on students' attendance, academic achievement, or promotion to the next grade level and only minimal impact on dropout rates.

"The problem is how do you create and sustain these programs so they have impact," asks Flaxman of Teachers College. Many of them are "soft," he says, relying primarily on the goodwill of volunteers, and are not tightly bound to an institution like a school or university.

"The absence of infrastructure, made worse by pressure to grow quickly and produce miraculous results, compromises mentoring's real potential to help," warns Freedman in the Winter 1993 issue of the quarterly journal Equity and Choice.

Persistence is a key quality to making relationships work, Freedman concludes. And if a volunteer mentor is working in isolation, without training or regular interaction with program staff members and other volunteers, his efforts are more likely to fall apart. The consequences of such isolation can be devastating for both parties. "For youths who've been let down by adults, it can mean that it will be that much harder to trust again," he writes. "For adults, whose initial involvement is often motivated by a fragile sense of goodwill, the result is increased cynicism."

The limited number of volunteers and their lack of training prompted Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, to caution in a 1993 column: "Mentoring is as chancy as a blind date--and no more likely to lead to the lasting and solid relationship these kids need."

And so Flaxman wonders, "Can we turn an arranged match into a love marriage?"

One researcher trying to answer this question is Jean E. Rhodes, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In her ongoing study of teenage mothers, Rhodes has set out to compare those young women who have "natural" mentors--such as a grandparent, a teacher, or a family friend--to those who have either an assigned mentor or no mentor at all.

She has found that the presence of a natural mentor can guard the young mothers against postpartum depression and anxiety. Those with natural mentors were also more likely to be working toward getting a better job or continuing their education.

But her preliminary data on the young mothers with assigned mentors have been somewhat discouraging. Four years into the study, about 50 percent of the mentors are no longer active. And of the mentors who have stuck with it, the range of involvement has varied considerably.

"It makes sense that the natural mentors are more effective because they are from the same neighborhood, they are more within the same networks," Rhodes says. "Instead of importing mentors from the outside, just teaching women how to recruit their own mentors might make more sense."

Surprising Findings

But a study of Big Brothers/Big Sisters released in November 1995 offers more promising findings--some of which surprised even the researchers who conducted it. The study, sponsored by Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia research and development organization, tracked 959 students between the ages of 10 and 14, about half of whom were matched with a Big Brother or Big Sister. Most were poor and came from families with histories of substance abuse, domestic violence, or both.

Researcher Jean Grossman cautioned the officials at Big Brothers/Big Sisters not to expect too much. "I've done evaluations for 15 or 20 years, and you become a little jaded because there is almost never really a successful program," she says. "But everyone at Public/Private Ventures was absolutely stunned with the type of impacts we got. They were so broad and covered so many different areas and were all much more positive than we have ever dreamed."

Based on self-reported data from the students, the study suggests that the mentored youngsters, who had been meeting with their "Bigs" for about 18 months, reaped many benefits from the program. They were 46 percent less likely to start using illegal drugs and 27 percent less likely to start drinking than the youngsters who had not been matched. What's more, the mentored students earned higher grades and reported improved relationships with their friends and families.

The study suggests that a combination of careful volunteer selection, formal training, and persistent follow-through has helped Big Brothers/Big Sisters succeed where other mentor programs have failed. Only about one-third of those who apply to be a Big Brother or Big Sister are actually matched with a child. Prospective volunteers must attend an orientation, submit character references, undergo a criminal and traffic-violation check, take part in a one- to two-hour personal interview, have a program staff member visit their home, and attend a training session.

Big Brothers/Big Sisters also offers intensive training sessions in youth development and staff members call volunteers at least once a month during their first year to check in and offer support. Staff members recommend that volunteers meet with students for three to five hours each week for at least a year.

The evaluation is the last of four Public/Private Ventures studies on the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Grossman views the set of studies--which also looked at recruiting and screening procedures, the process of building relationships, and the overall structure of the program--as the "crown jewel" of Public/Private Ventures' eight-year, $2 million research initiative on mentoring.

"What we have tried to emphasize is that this is what you can expect as the impact of a program that is as intensive as Big Brothers/Big Sisters. But other programs do not have that," she cautions. "When there are bumps along the way, the relationships fall apart. It is important to have a structure that can help the mentor over those bumps. Otherwise, the kids end up getting disappointed by an adult once again."

New Directions

Freedman, who also serves as the director of special projects at Public/Private Ventures, says mentoring programs need to start targeting volunteers who have more time on their hands. Senior citizens, he suggests, may make more logical matches than college students with busy class schedules or professionals with young children of their own.

"We have tended to focus on the busiest people in society, who often don't even have enough time to spend with their own kids," Freedman notes, citing a recent study that found Americans work 164 more hours a year than they did two decades ago. But older people are a particularly promising resource of talent, time, and experience. What's more, he adds, senior citizens are one of the fastest-growing segments of the population.

Others suggest that mentoring should be considered in a larger context. "It is important for kids to have an adult in their life," says Judy Wertzel, a special assistant to Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith. "Obviously, one adult is great, but more is better."

She adds that Department of Education officials "are trying to think about a range of strategies to create caring relationships between kids and adults, and mentoring is an important piece of that, along with smaller schools" and other ways of redesigning schools to enable more student-teacher interaction.

Freedman agrees. "We need to get away from the notion that one heroic individual is enough to change the life of a kid." What is needed, he says, is a two-pronged approach. First, increase the number of kids who have mentors by teaching kids how to recruit mentors for themselves. And then, follow that up by creating "mentor rich" institutions where kids can seek advice, support, and nurturing from a variety of adults.

"We want to teach kids how to fish for these adults," he says, "and then stock the pond with as many adults as possible."

More information on this topic is available from:

Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America
230 N. 13th St.
Philadelphia, Pa. 19107

I Have a Dream Foundation
330 Seventh Ave.
20th Floor New York, N.Y. 10001

Public/Private Ventures
One Commerce Square
2005 Market St.
Suite 900
Philadelphia, Pa. 19103

Flaxman, E., Ascher, C., & Harrington, C. Youth mentoring: Programs and practices. (1988). Eric Clearinghouse on Urban Education: Institute for Urban and Minority Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Freedman, M. (1993). The Kindness of strangers: Adult mentors, urban youth, and the new voluntarism. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Hamilton, S.F., & Hamilton, M.A. (1992). Mentoring programs: Promise and paradox. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(7), 546-550.

Levine, A., & Nidiffer, J. (1995). Beating the odds: How the poor get to college. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Rhodes, J.E., Ebert L., & Fischer, K. (1992). Natural mentors: An overlooked resource in the social networks of young, African-American mothers. American Journal of Community Psychology. 20(4), 445-461.

Vol. 15, Issue 20, Pages 33-35

Published in Print: February 7, 1996, as Ancient Advice
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