Such peer mentoring and so-called "affinity networks" are partly a response to the failures of some traditional mentoring programs, according to Mizuko “Mimi” Ito, a UC Irvine cultural-anthropology and informatics professor, who is the hub's research director and the co-founder of Connected Camps. While well-intentioned, traditional mentoring programs often match adults, teenage, or college-age volunteers with less privileged youngsters, without regard for a real bond, she said.
“It turns out that doesn't work for a lot of kids and it can actually set kids back if there isn’t a connection," Ito said. What works better is bringing people together on shared identity and interests, she said.
One of the online camp counselors this summer was Lilyann Khung Torres, who is 20 and attends UC Irvine. Using Minecraft, she taught coding to virtual groups of between 15 and 28 students, often recruited through online advertising. The students, ages 8 to 15, messaged each other busily and took on complex tasks online while more traditional camps would have them on a softball field or in a crafts room. Torres said the online sharing helps youngsters who might not feel comfortable speaking in a physical public group: "Some are able to express themselves more through typing than they would verbally." In some cases, the advice goes beyond game design and into personal issues; the chat has naturally veered into group commiseration over such issues as a player’s illness or the death of a pet.
In other programs, young people find their own mentors; the thinking is that allowing them to take initiative helps them form lasting, genuine relationships. The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program enrolls teens who have dropped out of high school or gotten into some other difficulties. After participants finish the quasi-military regimen, as The Atlantic has previously reported, they are launched back into mainstream society, often with positive results, researchers found. First, however, participants must find and stick with a mentor for at least a year, to help guide them back into the world. The mentor can be anyone except a parent—they could be a cousin, a teacher, a neighbor, a pastor, or a community leader.
Among the program's alumni is Lena Illig, now 23, of Anchorage, Alaska. She was failing high school six years ago, she said, but the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe's structure helped set her straight. She went on to pass her GED, graduate from the University of Alaska, and land a job as a federal transportation security officer.
Her first mentor was a family friend who, she said, was supportive, but it was her second mentor who made the biggest difference: David Weaver, a university professor who helped her find tutoring and financial aid. Weaver, now 40, was a good listener, she said: "When I would get overwhelmed, he was very good at de-stressing students." Such mentoring, informal or not, is important because "so many youth don’t have adequate guidance from their parents and they need help from other people to become self-sufficient young adults," Illig said.