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Closing the Mentoring Gap

Torie Weiston

School of Educational Studies doctoral student Torie Weiston isn’t waiting until she graduates to put her research into practice. While her dissertation looks at the effectiveness of mentoring African American students, her nonprofit is already demonstrating the link in local high schools.

Weiston spends her days teaching English to freshmen and juniors at Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California. It was there that she was driven to despair and eventually action by some of her underachieving students.

“I was sick of seeing black kids fail. I was tired of being that black teacher who looks at black kids and sees low test scores, low grades, and doesn’t do anything about it,” she said.

At the time, her ambitions were modest. In 2007 she started a small mentoring program with 20 students from Etiwanda. The goal was to get as many students together as she could and inspire them to achieve academic success.

“A big part was just letting kids know you don’t have to be a nerd or thought of as acting white just because you’re smart,” Weiston said. “Another part was teaching our history, showing we have a long line of cool, intelligent African Americans. And of course, it was just being there to give them support.”

Though these straightforward principles still serve as the foundation of her mentoring program, it has steadily grown in numbers and ambition over the years. In 2010, Weiston named her program the Youth Mentoring Action Network, and registered it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. By early 2012, there were over 70 students and seven volunteer staff members spread out over two high schools. But perhaps most important, Weiston has been noticing a change in the culture, so that academic success is seen as cool. And since her program is a key component in attaining that success (and coolness), new students at Etiwanda are regularly brought into the network by program veterans.

It’s not hard to see why the network has become so popular. As the organization demonstrates, mentoring is a multi-faceted endeavor. Mentees are taken on college tours and introduced to key people on campus, such as admission reps and current students. Several students have joined the Musician’s Crew, a breakout mentoring program that provides music theory and audio engineering training from professionals, as well as experience setting up and playing actual gigs. Weiston also arranges for guest speakers to come in and discuss their vocations; recently, the program hosted an advertising executive, audio engineer, and nurse.

“Our short- and medium-range goals are to get these students into four-year colleges and then get them to graduate. But we also want to help them identify a career and engage them that way,” said Weiston. “If a student can identify what they want to do professionally, that will keep them motivated.”

Notwithstanding the importance of these activities, Weiston knows that at its core mentoring is about one-on-one relationships.

“There is a vast body of mentoring research. Just about all of it says that it’s all about the relationship. The stronger that relationship, the better the mentoring is,” she said.

To foster that relationship, students are free to discuss anything with their mentors, whose doors are always open. Additionally, there are set, one-on-one appointments between mentors and students every Wednesday. These appointments, which usually last between five to 10 minutes, give mentors regular opportunities to check in with their students and identify and act on any issues before they become problems.

The relationship between a mentor and student is inherently different than the relationship students might have with their teachers or parents. Teachers are authority figures, inhibiting their ability to mentor and foster a personal connection. The situation is similar with parents, who also may be unable to provide this sort of guidance due to a lack of experience with higher education.

“Students should like their mentors. Students should think their mentor is cool and looking out for them. That is why students follow their mentor’s guidance, not because they want to get a good grade,” said Weiston.

For the Youth Mentoring Action Network and Weiston’s research, there is an emphasis on mentoring students of color. While there are already many studies on youth, work, and academic mentoring, there are few that specifically address mentoring African American youth.

“There’s a lot of academic achievement gap research. Everyone’s talking about how poorly African Americans are doing and how we should fix it. But there’s not a lot of talk about the role mentoring can play,” said Weiston. “Even in youth mentoring research, studies usually address minority youth or juvenile delinquents. They combine groups, but don’t look at the unique needs of the African American community.”

For African Americans, there is a particular need for the mentor to be aware of cultural norms and address these students’ lack of resources and familiarity with higher education. This means encouraging students to take advanced placement classes, even if he or she will be the only African American in the room; or attend a summer program on a college campus; or apply for an internship. Weiston has even had some of her mentees sit in on her classes at CGU.

“I want them to see what a graduate course is like, so they won’t have that fear or trepidation,” she said. “They loved it. And it was cool that CGU students liked seeing them.”

Creating the Youth Mentoring Action Network has not only helped Weiston in her research—she does a lot of qualitative surveying of her students to better identify the correlation between mentoring and academic achievement— but the mentees as well. The founding class of 20 graduated in 2011 and matriculated to schools such as Alabama A&M University; California State University, East Bay; and the University of California, Berkeley.

This year’s larger graduating class is eager to build on that success. Early in the spring semester, some of the students set up a white board where they update the list of schools where they had been accepted.

“Our seniors don’t even seem to need our mentoring anymore. They’ve actually been helping us mentor the freshmen, sophomores, and juniors,” said Weiston. “And it’s so cool to have this visual reminder of our goal for the rest of the students.”

When Weiston first enrolled at CGU, she thought her degree would help her achieve her goal of becoming a professor. But now she realizes her degree could also help her accomplish a different goal: building up the Youth Mentoring Action Network. The organization has been growing rapidly and she sees great potential for future expansion, particularly in the Inland Empire, an oft-overlooked region, despite a population of 4 million.

“I want to show people that the African American and Latino students are not dumb. It’s just a matter of supporting them in the ways they need support,” she said. “In our school we’ve already done that. I’ve seen the culture change. Now I want to move into other schools, and hopefully see the culture change there, as well.”

For more information on the Youth Mentoring Action Network, visit www.mentoringactionnetwork.org.


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