Berkeley High School Students and NCRVE Mentors: All Are Learners

by Mary Carol Randall

My baby daughter, Alicia, had an ear infection and, yes, it was affecting my work. Not only was I sleep-deprived and thus functioning more slowly during the work day, but I was also worried. She seemed better, after two days on antibiotics, but I still wondered: how long would this go on? She`d never had an ear infection before. Were they going to start happening all the time now?

My friend Amy told me, "Make sure you don't give her a bottle while she's lying down. The milk can settle in the ear canal and cause infection." Amy's child is four months older than mine, so she often has helpful tips to share. Amy, who is 17, wants to be a pediatrician. She is a student at Berkeley High School, and I am her work-place mentor.

The NCRVE mentoring and workplace learning program began in the fall of 1995. NCRVE mentors were matched on a one-to-one basis with students in nearby Berkeley High School (BHS). Berkeley High requires its mentors to meet at least once a month with mentees, but the NCRVE program has been ambitious from the beginning, and students are expected to come to the worksite once a week during the school year, along with carrying out various writing projects.

Scale of the Program

The NCRVE program contains both mentoring and workplace learning components: this complexity of structure took some time to work out. In addition, recruiting and matching students to mentors proved more difficult and time-consuming than expected. As a result, the NCRVE program took longer to get off the ground than anticipated. However, both structural and "matching" issues got resolved, and the final program represents the collaborative efforts of David Stern, NCRVE director, Paulette Powell, NCRVE's Workforce Development Program director, Flora Russ, co-director of the BHS Computer Academy, Frank Schooley, community outreach/mentor coordinator; and all the mentors and students.

In Homegrown Lessons: Innovative Programs Linking School and Work (1995), authors Edward Pauly, Hilary Kopp and Joshua Haimson look at 16 school-to-work programs in various parts of the country. In some cases the programs were linked with only one employer, in some cases four, or five, or six--and in one case, a STW program was linked with 400 employers! In turn, the employers varied considerably in terms of the number of work "slots" they provided, but the majority provided three or fewer job slots for students. NCRVE, as an employer, provided five high school students with summer employment and arranged for six mentor/youth pairs to attend the Long Beach Conference (see story on page 6). The conference and the summer jobs have supported the development of the mentoring relationships: work provides an ongoing way for the mentoring adult and youth to have regular contact, and provides a commonality of interest (the work to be done). It also allows the youth to contribute to NCRVE, thus making the exchange between mentor and student more two-sided and mutual.

Between fall, 1995, and the end of summer, 1996, students participated in the following activities:

Mentoring: A Natural Human Process

Mentoring is designed to replicate a natural human process, where people of different ages spend time together and share knowledge and experiences. Having proximity, through working together, helps alleviate one of the most common problems in mentoring: not meeting regularly enough. NCRVE's program ensures contact at least once a week throughout the school year. NCRVE mentors spend time with their mentees as part of the regular work schedule and Berkeley High grants the students leave time from one class period. Thus, the mentoring is supported by the respective organizations as well as by the individuals involved, which means that meeting times are structured as part of the ongoing work/school schedule.

Stephen Hamilton and Mary Agnes Hamilton, in "Mentoring Programs: Promise and Paradox" (Phi Delta Kappan, March 1992) describe mentors in terms of "their understanding of their purpose." The Hamiltons conducted a number of interviews with mentors and categorized "purpose" in these four ways:

"Level 1 mentors saw their primary purpose as developing a relationship with their protégés ... Level 2 mentors spoke of introducing options as a major purpose ... Level 3 mentors stressed developing character as their main purpose ... Level 4 mentors focused on developing competence ...The four levels are hierarchical in the sense that mentors identified in one of the higher levels usually talked about lower-level purposes as well. But those at the lower levels did not mention the higher-level purposes."

Because NCRVE's program includes a workplace learning component, building competency in "specific areas of knowledge and skill" is quite important. This gives a context to the mentoring program. Both student and mentor understand what the purpose of the meeting is, that is, what is supposed to be accomplished and/or learned. In addition to the specific tasks, there is human warmth in the interactions: all the mentors genuinely like and are concerned about the students. This warmth, and an ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances, is quite important. Some students have confided in their NCRVE mentors about personal difficulties. Others have not been able to develop skills in quite the way the mentors foresaw, and creativity has been required to come up with a different approach.

Whatever the challenges, having the requirements of work has helped. The structure provides consistency for both mentors and students, within which human relationships can gradually develop. Mentors also offer each other support through informal discussion and meetings where they discuss the challenges and rewards of mentoring and make practical suggestions.

Mutuality: An Important Dimension in Learning

The Hamiltons found that mentors, like mentees, need ongoing support. New mentors frequently believe that, as adults, they "give to" the youth, support them, act as role models, and the youth are there to "receive" extra support, learn concrete skills, perhaps get a job. And certainly some of that dynamic needs to occur, in order for the mentoring relationship to be successful. But Robert Sigmon, in his article "Service-Learning: Three Principles" (National Society for Internships and Experiential Education) says that "mutuality is an important dimension in learning" and "those who serve are also learners." I decided to follow-up on Sigmon's statement by asking both NCRVE mentors and mentees what they had learned through the NCRVE program. Some of their answers follow.
"When I met Miss America at the Long Beach conference, I was really surprised. I didn't expect her to be a down-to-earth person, but she was. She was interested in other people, in students, very supportive. When I told her my story, she had tears in her eyes. I made Miss America cry!" (student)
"These students--who have been called `high risk,' and who, in all honesty are often not doing particularly well academically--are doing just fine at work. They are bright, creative, quick and sometimes have done a better job with their tasks than the college students we've hired in the past." (mentor)
"It seems like sometimes I learn the same things at work as at school, but I learn them better at work. I think because I'm getting paid." (student)
"I've learned to practice patience and respect. When I listen to some of my mentee's opinions about people, different lifestyles or points-of-view, I am surprised by her parochialism... Then I remember that my own awareness came only after years of self-exploration, discovery and the gentle guidance of kind mentors. Also, our society disvalues youth and their ideas. My mentee has taught me how to check my ageist attitudes and to appreciate her innovative ideas and perspective." (mentor)
"I've learned that working hard always has a good outcome, and that whenever I needed help, there was someone to ask." (student)
"I've learned mentoring is as much for the mentor as it is for the mentee. Through this process, I've gained a deeper insight into who I am as a person and what I have and don't have to offer." (mentor)
"I've had two different half-time summer jobs. I've learned that it's probably easier to have one full-time job than two part-time jobs. Yet if you have two jobs you get to experience different things and have different friends than if you were only at one job." (student)
"I had been a mentor before, informally, tutoring the teenage son of a friend. It was a mutually rewarding relationship, but sometimes I felt frustrated and didn't know what to do next. I would call friends who were teachers for suggestions, then try again. Eventually, because of the incredible pressures on my `free time,' I had to stop tutoring--even though my mentee still needed support and was willing to continue meeting. I felt that I was, in some way, abandoning him, but with the demands of my own family, I just could not continue. In the current mentoring relationship, we meet during work hours, which means that I will be able to continue mentoring all the way through my mentee's graduation from high school. From this, I have learned that the mentor also needs support--strategies and reading materials from other adults, and the organizational/time support of a school and/or workplace. " (mentor)

And finally, from Paulette Powell, the director of the program: "I have learned the virtue of patience and flexibility, and the importance of proceeding without knowing exactly what the outcome will be. One must keep an open and positive attitude that things will work out. In developing a new program, it is critical to invest the time needed to frame a program in the right way. It is equally critical to persevere in the midst of the implementation challenges that will arise. I experienced the fact that flexibility allows you to transition through rough periods when shifts and/or adjustments in the program plans or assignments are necessary. I have also learned that the characteristics for successful programs include dedication, enthusiasm, and a great deal of energy."

This article was written as a result of a pact with my mentee. While I've been writing this article, Amy has been completing her survey of working parents at NCRVE (including questions about child care, health care, and role models for children). There is something about mentoring which seems--essential. The young people we've been working with can have wonderfully bright futures if they keep believing in themselves and if "we," the adults around them, keep believing in them. On a larger scale, the future of youth will shape the future of our entire society. "Never underestimate the importance of young people," as Robin Morgan, author and editor, said in a recent speech. Sharing our lives and our selves with those both older and younger is one way to help build a society which is equitable, functional and joyful.

Mary Carol Randall manages the editing and publication of CenterWork, is a member of the NCRVE Dissemination Program, and an NCRVE mentor.

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