Mike Gandy, now 28, was frustrated, losing patience as he fumbled with his tie ahead of an eighth grade formal. He wasn’t sure how to tie the knot. So he called Austin Scee, his Big Brother mentor, who calmly walked him through the steps.
The next year, when Gandy decided to skip studying and homework his first semester of high school, Scee hopped on a plane from Boston to Atlanta and set up conferences with his teachers. Afterward, the pair sat down and outlined what would be possible if Gandy got his act together.
“It was the first time in my life I had set goals or anyone had helped me set goals for what I wanted to do,” Gandy recalled.
He would graduate high school three and a half years later with a 3.5 GPA, then attend college in upstate New York. Next spring, he will graduate from Harvard Business School and begin work at a top Boston consulting firm.
A variety of forces, both good and bad, have influenced Gandy’s trajectory. But Scee, his mentor, has been the constant. He believed in Gandy’s ability to thrive, with consistency, from the time the boy was in elementary school.
“He held me accountable,” Gandy said.
The two first met in 1997 when Gandy was 9 years old and Scee was in his mid-20s. They were paired up through the Big Brothers program in Atlanta, where both lived at the time. Born to a single mother and raised without a father figure, Gandy was a smart kid, but he was often in trouble for speaking out of turn and talking back.
Shy around adults he didn’t know, Gandy learned to trust Scee through their shared love of pizza and sports. The trust has grown because Scee did something relatively straightforward but that many kids never experience from adults: he kept showing up.
“I think mentorship is one of the most important things we can do in our society,” Scee said.
More and more, policymakers agree with him. The newly reauthorized federal education law recognizes mentoring as an important ingredient in the effort to stop teens from dropping out of high school. Outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan has repeatedly talked about the importance of positive relationships in keeping students engaged. And, increasingly, research suggests that programs like the Posse Foundation, which operates with the idea that creating a sense of belonging and community for first-generation college students helps them succeed, are effective at increasing college graduation rates.
Parents who have the time, money and ability to help their children develop the social and emotional skills that more employers expect employees to possess “put their kids at great advantage,” said Wendy Foster, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay, the affiliate Gandy has raised money for during his time at Harvard. Pairing kids who don’t see those skills modeled in their daily lives with mentors, she said, helps children learn to form positive relationships with adults, increases engagement at school, and mitigates risky behavior.
As the gap between those who have very little and those who have a lot continues to grow, Foster said, her organization has been fielding more calls for Big Brother and Big Sister mentors. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay now typically has around 1,500 children waiting to be matched.
There are now more than 300 Big Brothers Big Sisters affiliates around the country that have set up some 200,000 matches. Studies suggest that participants are 52 percent less likely to skip school, and 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs. But need is always growing and shifting. Children of color now make up a majority of students. These children are disproportionately likely to be living in lower-income, single-parent households. A recent Pew Research study indicated that just 31 percent of black children live with two married parents, compared to 72 percent of white children. Nearly a third of one-parent households live in poverty, compared to just 10 percent of homes with children growing up with two married parents. The number of single-parent households has continued to climb in recent years, meaning there could be greater need for groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters going forward.
Scee has helped Gandy navigate both big and small obstacles. He has also exposed him to experiences that showed him there was a world beyond the north side of Atlanta. When Gandy was 10, Scee had a business trip in Orlando. So Scee flew Gandy down for a trip to Disney World, his first time outside of Georgia. When Scee flew down to discuss Gandy’s dismal first-year grades, he didn’t berate Gandy. Instead, he told him he had potential, that he was worth the investment. A few years later, Scee, an avid athlete who has worked in different capacities in the finance sector, took the Georgia Tech-obsessed teen on college visits beyond state borders.
“He opened my eyes to the world around me,” Gandy said. “He pushed me to explore and try new things.”
Scee introduced him to sushi and gave him the sex talk when an eighth grade classmate got pregnant. As Gandy got older, Scee facilitated connections that led to internships and professional networking opportunities. Recently, Scee helped a nervous Gandy plot a marriage proposal.
In other words, he provided a boy who was perfectly capable of succeeding but facing long odds with opportunities and advantages his upper-income peers were receiving just by virtue of their birth.
Scee worked in finance and Gandy, perhaps subconsciously, wanted to be like him. He was good at math and competitive. After graduation, he spent several years in banking before following in Scee’s footsteps to Harvard Business School. He enrolled in 2014, but it wasn’t his first experience on campus. While he was in middle school, Scee flew Gandy to Boston to sit in on a class. The case study, Gandy remembers, was Disney, and he was fascinated.
Everything he has done for his Little Brother may sound like a lot, Scee acknowledges, but he insists it “wasn’t a big obligation.”
“It was letting him know he was special enough to participate in those special things happening in the world,” he said. “It’s been one of the best experiences of my life.”
Convincing other young men to become mentors is a challenge, however. For a single, no-strings guy, committing to meet with a mentee for a year (the minimum required) can seem inconvenient. The possibility of messing a kid up or somehow failing can also be scary, Scee said, but he’s convinced it can be done.
“It takes telling a 25-year-old man, ‘You’re going to be a better person for having done this,’” he said, noting that the military successfully recruits young people with that message.
Gandy still sees Scee as a mentor, but Gandy has also taken on a mentoring role. Just as Scee did years ago, Gandy recently brought his Little Brother James, a 10th grader from Harlem, to Harvard for a taste of college life.
When Foster talks to “Littles,” she said, a “huge number say their relationship with that adult helped them change their perspective on what they thought was possible in life.”
The organization has altered the way it reaches out to potential mentors, engaging them online, in the hopes of recruiting enough mentors to match the increasing number of mentees. Easing the volunteering process has helped increase interest, but to truly scale mentoring, Foster said, “we need more of our nation’s leaders standing up.”
Efforts like President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to encourage young men of color have been positive, she said, but the lack of money behind such efforts is limiting.
“The kind of mentoring infrastructure that delivers results isn’t free,” she said.
She hopes that more research backing mentoring will lead to greater investment from philanthropies and policymakers. Scee agrees, and thinks the benefits of investing in mentoring are every bit as impactful as investments in academics.
“Accountability is one of the most important things you can provide,” Scee said. “That’s more important than books and computers. All that other stuff is just context...if you put somebody on a path where they believe they can succeed, you can put all kinds of obstacles in front of them and they’ll still succeed.”
Gandy isn’t about to graduate from Harvard because Scee did it for him; he’s about to graduate because Scee ignited in him the belief that he was just as capable and worthy of success as anybody else. The rest was all Gandy.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
This story is part of our Next America: Workforce project, which is supported by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.