Mentoring's Promise and Limits

Research on the long-term effects of advisers is mixed, and some programs are now relying on video-game networks and other technology to forge stronger relationships.

A man and a little boy hold hands while crossing a snowy bridge.
Fred Thornhill / Reuters

When Leo Hall was 8 years old, his mother sent him to a tutoring program that served the African American and low-income neighborhood of the Cabrini-Green public-housing projects where they lived in Chicago. There, he met a volunteer tutor, Daniel Bassill, who helped him with homework, played chess and backgammon with him, and talked about growing up.

"Dan was there as a male friend, a mentor, somebody I could talk to," Hall recalled. He was "a father figure, a big brother, a friend."

That was 44 years ago. Since then, through several years at the tutoring program and a long friendship, Hall and Bassill have stayed in a relationship that transcends their differences in age, race (Hall, 52, is black and Bassill, 69, is white), and geography. Hall continues to invite Bassill to major family events, such as his college graduation and his wedding; he even gave Bassill an airplane ticket from Chicago to Nashville, Tennessee, so his former tutor could attend his 50th birthday party.*

As for Bassill, mentoring became a main theme in his life. After volunteering for a program started by his employer at the time—the Montgomery Ward retail chain—the advertising executive wound up running it and founding other tutoring programs. And now, it satisfies him knowing that some of the influence he had on a young boy in Cabrini-Green extends to another generation—Hall's two sons, one of whom is already in college.

The ultimate goal of mentoring, Bassill said, is “making the young person capable of doing the mentoring.”

Mentoring, research shows, can help people academically, emotionally, and socially; it can steer them clear of trouble and toward college, career, and a better life. But the true impact of mentoring may be difficult to ascertain in the long-term, complex fabric of life. Its influence can be mysterious and hard to duplicate—whether it is from a formal volunteer tutoring program or a teacher or family friend who keeps urging you to stick to the straight and narrow. Complicating the picture is the fact the very traditional mentoring between Bassill and Hall is now being supplemented, and even replaced in some cases, by social media and online groups in which participants play games together, take classes, and chat.

As a result, psychologists and community activists are searching for patterns to show how mentoring succeeds in all sorts of settings and why it often fails. They hope to find ways to improve volunteer and online programs and to help families, professors, coaches, clergy members, and neighbors better nurture and challenge young people on the path to jobs and higher education. The widening investigation into these issues is linked to efforts to make young people more resilient, especially if they are growing up in environments of poverty and violence where negative role models may outnumber positive ones.

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If you talk to successful people about what made a difference in their lives, "it often comes down to the involvement of a caring adult over time and during critical moments," said the University of Massachusetts at Boston psychology professor Jean Rhodes, one of the nation's leading experts on mentoring. Mentoring sometimes involves helping you "figure out what you want to do with your life … who are the people who will help you get there … and how do you connect with them."

Rhodes worked with a team of other psychologists and social scientists on a meta-analysis of 73 mentoring programs aimed at children and adolescents across the nation. The results, first published in 2011 in Psychological Sciences in the Public Interest, showed that active mentoring as an intervention helped to improve children's school achievement and helped to counter poor behavior, drug use, and depression compared to young people who did not receive the help. The gains were somewhat modest and there is no solid proof of lasting impact, but mentoring produces some benefits—if done right, she said.

Another research project has found some positive results from mentoring. In their ongoing investigation of nearly 1,000 youngsters in the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs in Canada, the researchers David DeWit and Ellen Lipman's preliminary results in 2013 showed that children with mentors were more confident in schoolwork and had better behavior and less emotional turmoil.

But not all children have equal access to these positive outcomes. According to the National Mentoring Partnership, middle-class and affluent young people often enjoy a network of family and friends serving as informal mentors and can have access to camp counselors, sports coaches, and therapists pushing them to success. About two-thirds of teens in the highest economic quartile receive some mentoring beyond their extended family, while, in contrast, only about a third of youth from the bottom economic quarter do, the organization reported in a 2013 study.

Formal, socially conscious mentoring programs—like Big Brothers Big Sisters—try to help fill in that gap and help low-income kids navigate safely through tough neighborhoods and lousy schools. The vast majority of young adults who received such formal mentoring found them helpful to reach a productive adulthood, the National Mentoring Partnership study found. But those resources are obviously limited, and the unequal access to mentoring "contributes significantly to the opportunity gap," writes the Harvard public-policy professor Robert D. Putnam in his book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. And access problem aside, executing an effective mentoring program is tricky because there are so many moving parts.

In Chicago, Bassill has seen the upsides and the limits of mentoring. He became so involved that he established an organization, the Tutor Mentor Institute, which encourages good mentoring nationwide. But over the decades, he noticed about half of volunteer mentors did not persist beyond their first year. They started with a "sense of wanting to give back" to society, but many expected "instantaneous change on part of kids. And it doesn’t happen that way." Their quitting has an extra negative effect because the longer mentoring lasts, "the greater the impact."

Bassill and other experts said mentors should be properly screened, trained, and matched to ensure their involvement can be long term, avoid the nightmarish possibilities of sexual abuse, and help them work with a program’s specific population, such as foster children or teens preparing for college. Programs could face failure if they are located in an unsafe setting, don’t get buy-in from families, and rely too much on mentors who have an authoritarian bent, they added.

One way some programs are overcoming these barriers is through “connected learning,” in which young people who don’t even live in the same city interact through video-game networks and other technology. Among the organizations studying connected learning are the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at the University of California's Irvine campus and a related national network, Connected Learning Alliance (CLA). Inspired by the CLA’s research, Connected Camps are held after school, on weekends, and in summer. Its counselors—often college students studying game design or informatics and recruited to participate by faculty—use typed chat rooms and voice communication to guide youngsters and teens through Minecraft, a popular video game that allows users to build constructions out of textured cubes and often involves imaginary travels.

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.

Like many mentors, Weaver described feeling a need to "pay it forward" to thank the people who mentored him. Now a University of Alaska administrator who oversees dorms and dining services, he recalled how he floundered in college until a professor told him he was not living up to his potential. From then on, Weaver began to take his studies more seriously. "For the first time, I felt accountable to someone and I was not going to disappoint him," he said. Decades later, Weaver and his professor still meet for coffee.

And working with a professor like Weaver who doubles as a mentor has been proven to help students. A Gallup-Purdue Index poll in 2014 pointed out the benefits of having a college professor who shows an interest in and mentors students. The study of more than 30,000 college graduates in the U.S. demonstrated the lasting impacts on their careers. It also demonstrated how rare such mentoring can be.

While 63 percent of the poll respondents reported having at least one college professor who made them excited about learning, only 27 percent said they had had a professor who cared “about [them] as a person,” and only 22 percent had a college mentor who encouraged their “ goals and dreams.” Graduates who "strongly" agreed that they had all three of these experiences were twice as likely to have been positively engaged in their post-college work, the poll found. The research on mentoring shows limits on its effectiveness.

Still, on an individual basis, some mentoring connections are deep and likely to resonate for years, if not a lifetime. Sandi Silbert, a Los Angeles graphic designer, began as a Big Sister to an 11-year-old boy who was an orphan. Twenty years later, she is still friends with him. Then, five years ago, Silbert started volunteering as a tutor to a 9-year-old girl through a program that aids homeless families. The tutoring and the mentoring continue without the institutional structure, as the girl's family is no longer homeless. Silbert, 59, and Anarely Hernandez, 15, meet weekly at a local library, work on homework, and sometimes take trips to the movies or museums.

“It makes me feel like I‘m doing something hopeful,” Silbert said. "You are doing something that makes this person’s life a little better and she is appreciative.”

Anarely said the tutoring and editing of her term papers were really important while she was trying to master English. Now a high-school sophomore at a Catholic girls’ school, she is counting on Silbert’s help ahead on college applications. “Sandi always tries to give me the best advice,” she said. “I owe her a lot more than just school work. She is a great person. She does not do this to get paid. She does it out of her own heart. And, now, when I tell her I need help, I know she is going to help me in any way she can.”

Meanwhile in Nashville, Hall, the one-time mentee, said that mentoring made all the difference in getting past pitfalls that stymied some of his childhood friends in Chicago.* An uncle and, later, a college engineering professor helped guide him, he recalled, but Bassill was the one who steered him through high school into college. Hall, who now works as a software-quality tester, also said that having an interracial friendship “taught me to deal with people who are not like you.”

Hall himself has volunteered with young people, including through teaching Sunday school at his church. Now, he has had his own advice for potential mentors: “It’s having patience. Find out what the person likes and what they don’t like. Find out what scares them and what fears they have, what makes them happy and what ticks them off ... Being a mentor is being a listening board. A lot of times, people just want someone to listen to them.”

Research for this article was sponsored in part by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which also helps fund the Digital Media and Learning Hub and the Connected Learning Alliance at the University of California's Irvine campus.

* This article originally stated that Leo Hall resides in Louisville, Kentucky. We regret the error.