Schrauth and Shapiro: Virtual Mentoring Was Invaluable During the Pandemic. Keeping It Going Can Close the Gap for the 1 in 3 Students Who Need a Mentor’s Help

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Early on, it seemed mentoring could be another casualty of the pandemic, the developmental relationships so many young people depended on for guidance and stability dissipating right when they were needed most. The COVID-19 crisis not only had the potential to disrupt learning, it threatened the ability to develop, maintain and grow networks of support — the social capital that is key to students’ thriving.

Mentoring programs across the country responded swiftly. With committed staff and volunteers and creative shifts to virtual mentoring, programs worked hard to limit lapses in the relationships, supports and services that young people needed more than ever as new challenges and traumas came their way.

Experts in e-mentoring have long known the value of virtual connection. iCouldBe, a leading national organization in this work, has provided students ages 13 and up with online mentors for 20 years. Immediately following the COVID-19 outbreak, iCouldBe and Mentor partnered to develop and launch the Virtual Mentoring Portal, an online entry point that enables mentor/mentee matches to continue their relationships online. Later, CricketTogether, an e-mentoring platform for youngsters 12 and under,  joined up to expand the service. 

The demand was intense: At one point during the pandemic, more than 400 mentoring programs from around the country, serving nearly 100,000 young people, asked iCouldBe about moving their in-person services to the platform. 

Although many mentoring programs made the pivot to virtual to fill a gap in an emergency, they quickly realized the unique, long-term possibilities of virtual connections: Technology could help match mentor/mentee pairs; online connections could span time zones and eliminate transportation issues for hard-to-reach youth; and the data generated could allow for detailed tracking and evaluation of tutoring’s reach and effectiveness.

So far, the data shows it’s working: In a national study, adult mentors were asked about the impact the pandemic had on their relationships with mentees. Almost half reported that virtual mentoring worked for them and their mentee, and about a third reported that the pandemic led to a positive impact on their mentoring relationships, likely because of more frequent check-ins and and a broadening of support to include challenges happening outside of school.

With the return of in-person learning, schools and organizations are largely keeping the virtual components of their mentoring programs for these very reasons. But it’s also critical that programs share valuable lessons about what’s working and why. 

For example, Zoom fatigue appeared to be negatively affecting engagement among students in Fresno, California, even as they continued to gravitate toward social media platforms to stay in touch with peers. If young people were to open up, they needed online spaces where they felt free to be themselves.

In response, Fresno Unified School District and iCouldBe developed a program where high school juniors and seniors mentored middle school students. Peer mentoring became the key to developing early trust and quickly identifying students who needed the most support — whether navigating the college application process, working through a challenging class or looking for social-emotional check-ins. These peer connections enabled deeper relationships and engagement: Fifty mentees connected virtually with their peer mentors more than 750 times throughout the 2020-21 school year and completed nearly 500 activities in the iCouldBe curriculum.

Early in the pandemic, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Palm Beach and Martin Counties’ School to Work Program shifted from in-person to fully virtual services. Suddenly, students had mentors from throughout the country in diverse professional fields not necessarily available in their towns. Those in rural areas without transportation could connect with experts in a range of fields who could provide support for career exploration, financial literacy, employability and other life skills. And with new glimpses into their mentees’ lives, virtual mentors found themselves meeting more of the kids’ holistic needs that affected their educational thriving and striving.

In South Florida and throughout the country, virtual mentoring in concert with schools expanded a key concept in helping students succeed — that relationships are an integral part of the student success puzzle. To buoy students through difficult times and bolster them for success, relationships with mentoring adults should be tracked and measured as robustly as academic performance. 

Virtual mentoring platforms provide real-time data: about mentee and mentor participation;  the ratio of mentee to mentor posts (an indicator of qualitative relationship-building conversations); and average days between communications (an indicator of responsiveness). This information helps staff, teachers and administrators easily identify places to intervene, as well as high-engagement relationships to celebrate. 

Research on successful strategies for transitioning to e-mentoring continues, even as the pandemic begins to wane. iCouldBe, Mentor and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have joined forces to research what support systems need to be in place for in-person mentoring programs to transition to virtual, and to outline the impact e-mentoring programs have on youth outcomes. 

Researchers have already found that, at the beginning of the pandemic, traditional mentoring programs had mixed results in quickly transitioning to some form of virtual support. Despite barriers due to technological limitations, staff retention and buy-in and access to facilities,  mentoring programs met these challenges with determination and creativity. These findings could help close the gap for the one in three young people who are growing up without a mentor.

One lesson from the pandemic is that with virtual mentoring, physical distance does not have to result in social disconnection. In fact, it improves both the accessibility and types of mentors, and heightens the impact that a web of supportive relationships has on young people, especially in a time of crisis.

Kate Schrauth is executive director of iCouldBe, an early e-mentoring innovator that has matched more than 24,000 students with mentors for career discovery and development. David Shapiro is CEO of Mentor, the unifying national champion for expanding quality mentoring relationships for young people.

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