Thursday, June 12, 2014

The mentoring gap

It started out like any other typical Saturday night. 

My husband and I went out to dinner. We ate (too many) chips with salsa before our meal came. We talked. We laughed. We enjoyed the outdoor Florida nighttime air. 

Our meals came, and as we ate I couldn't help but overhear the conversation at the table right next to us. (I promise I wasn't being weird and nosy, but, you know, when you're just eating and not talking outside and there's no music, you can't help but hear what's going on around you.) 

From what I heard, it was clearly a mom, a dad, and a young man home for the summer from college. They were just having a nice family dinner, just like I was. But something was very different about their family dinner than any I'd ever encountered. 

After spending so many years immersed with low-income and first generation students, I'd forgotten this other world. 

During the course of a simple Saturday dinner, this young man was given a wealth of advice and support from his parents regarding college and his future.

The purpose of the dinner was not to lecture him. It wasn't to discuss his future. It just sort of happened, naturally, in between laughs and talk of other things.

By the time I was halfway through eating my mac-and-chorizo the dad had already related what medical school was like and how he got through it, and the mom was reminding her son why he had earlier decided he didn't want to be a lawyer. Both parents then gave him some advice and leads for his internship plans for this summer and next summer. 

In short, they had a very positive mentoring session. 

It was also obvious that this was a high income family. They talked about the young man's high school - the best private school in my area. The dad was a doctor. These were wealthy people, and this was an example of what a casual saturday night could look like in a high income family.

I saw these relationships all the time when I was a private SAT/ACT tutor. It wasn't just about parents who cared - I had parents who cared. And I would imagine wealth doesn't automatically make you a caring parent.

This was something different. It was parents who cared and who'd been there. They had this vast well of knowledge to draw from and pass along to their kid. A cycle of wealth. A cycle of success.

I spent most of my time thinking about how to create these similar relationship exchanges to help break the cycles of poverty that are all around us. 

I got in the car that night and said to my husband, almost teary-eyed, "how do you compete with that?"

And by "you" I meant of course all the students who don't have those kinds of Saturday-night mentoring sessions with their strongest role models - their parents. 

But here's the thing, I think you can compete. These types of conversations are vital to success, but it's okay if you don't happen to have them in your family.

That is where I believe other crucial support systems come in. Teachers, mentors, professors, school staff, college staff, non-profit staff, etc. That is why I'm constantly emphasizing those relationships and conversations in my speeches

We need the formal stuff, the systems, the processes, the programs, all that - but we also need to remember the importance of those informal one-on-one conversations. The moments where you can talk about what you want to do with your life, what's going on in your life, and have someone who cares about you and who has some experience help you figure things out. 

And not just once, but often, consistently. 

We all need this. I still need it! I was just on the phone with an important mentor in my life last week asking for advice. 

I wrote my book so that I could give community college students the tools to ensure that no matter where they come from they can build that community of success. 

There is a mentoring gap. But it's not too late to fill it. 

And I for one am thankful to all the unsung heroes out there who are having conversations like the one I heard that Saturday night, with students who, while they may not be their sons or daughters, are treated like they are anyway. 

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