As the senior associate of mentors and volunteers at the nonprofit Chicago Scholars, I work to recruit, train and manage a large group of mentors who are volunteering their time to help more than 600 students get to — and through — college. I truly believe that anyone can be a great mentor, because in one area or another, each of us can serve as a positive example of what is possible when someone believes in, invests in and genuinely cares about someone and his or her growth. Still not convinced that you have what it takes? I am certain you do, especially after reading these four tips on becoming an effective mentor.
1. Look for Opportunities to Give Back
Over the past decade, “mentoring” has become a buzzword in youth development and education spaces. In particular, President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative brought much-needed attention to the importance of mentorship, specifically for young men and women of color. The result is a swath of mentoring opportunities in all shapes and sizes across the country. One is bound to work for you.
The easiest way to find worthwhile opportunities is to visit MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership and use its “Become A Mentor” tool. You can also check out the Corporation for National & Community Services’ mentorship portal. Or, if you’re seeking something less formal, consider volunteering with students at a local school.
Exposing students to professionals who look like and come from similar places to them can be as impactful as a formal mentoring relationship. My most meaningful experience as a mentee didn’t come through an organized program. In fact, I don’t think the man who mentored me as a teenager knew that I referred to him as a “mentor” until I publicly thanked him at my college graduation celebration. I met him when I was in middle school. He was the youth pastor at the church I attended in Texas. He was part of my life during a very crucial time, as I was forming my identity, and was a model of the type of man I wanted to be. He was the most constant male presence in my life, and I learned a lot from him directly and indirectly. He invested in me in a way that I still reap the benefits from today.
2. Commit to Relationship-Building
Establishing a relationship with your mentee sounds like an obvious must-do, but it’s also one of the most challenging steps of the process. During my first year as a teacher in New Orleans, my mentor told me, “Students typically don’t learn from people or teachers who they don’t like or don’t have an established relationship with.” The same is true for mentors. At Chicago Scholars, we train our mentors to be consistent in communication and meetings, actively listen, present themselves as a wise friend and not an all-knowing authority and be ready with advice and help when needed.
Being able to engage your mentee’s interests will go a long way, too. In high school, I was deeply involved in photography and videography. My mentor, though not in the field himself, was able to connect with me by sharing relevant opportunities. He even hired me as an intern to assist in creative aspects of our youth ministry at church. This truly showed me that he cared.
3. Check Your Bias
At Chicago Scholars, our mentees come from Chicago public schools, belong to under-resourced communities and/or would be first in their families to attend college. Not every mentor has this background, which is why cultural sensitivity is so important to how mentors both establish relationships and engage with their mentees. Prior to meeting your mentee, take some time to honestly examine your prejudices (we all have them) and think deeply about the source of your biases. With the popularity of social media and reality television, it’s even more important to understand that the representations of certain groups of people may not be true for all (or at all). As a millennial in the workplace, I have encountered biases from older coworkers towards me that have been the furthest from the truth. Approach differences with your mentee as an opportunity to learn how the times we live in help shape the people we become. You cannot assist from a distance. You have to experience things that are familiar to them. Once you are able to identify and push through common challenges, your mentor/mentee relationships will continue to grow.
4. Believe That You Can Make a Difference
Anna, a mentor at Chicago Scholars, often speaks about her mentee with whom she remained in contact with throughout the mentee’s college career. Anna’s mentee happened to be a dreamer, which made navigating the admission cycle a bit more challenging. Anna went above and beyond to support her throughout this process, even assisting her in navigating the DACA paperwork, which took a huge weight off of her mentee’s shoulders and allowed her to focus on getting acclimated to college culture. The mentee was then able to get involved on campus, become a campus leader, and graduate at the top of her class from George Washington University.
Anna’s impact on her mentee’s life is undeniable. But making that kind of difference is rarely easy. I once mentored a young man who was super smart but didn’t know how to direct his energy while in school. He got into trouble every day. I made it my mission to connect with him because he reminded me of myself when I was in high school. Unfortunately, he was expelled from the school, but I remained in contact with him. We meet up for lunch regularly, and I take him to events with me throughout the city. I want to invest in his life and inspire him like my mentor did for me. Best of all, he returned to school this fall with fresh goals and a mentor to hold him accountable.
If you make the same commitment to invest in and inspire others, you too can serve an incredibly important purpose in someone’s life.
This article originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s digital magazine. The Well is the digital magazine of Jopwell, the career advancement platform for Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American professionals and students. Subscribe to receive weekly stories and advice in your inbox.
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