By Phyllis Segal
It’s National Mentoring Month, and I’m reminded of child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner’s words: “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.”
And that makes me think about my dad. He made me feel I could do no wrong, even when I did. He made me believe that if I aimed for the stars, I could reach them.
When I was in my teens, Dad’s craziest idea was that I would become a nuclear physicist. Mind you that was in the 1950s, and I had absolutely no idea what a nuclear physicist is. (Come to think of it, I’m still not sure I know that today.)
I can’t describe any older adults outside my family as irrationally crazy about me. But I was fortunate to have several who helped me become the now-73-year-old person I am today.
Some were my teachers, like Ms. Hess in sixth grade, who made me believe I could write poetry (ok, a bit of a leap as it turned out), and Mr. Sloane, who encouraged me to run for president of my high school’s junior class and then secretary of the school. And then, after I was elected, he helped me understand what it meant to serve the students I represented.
In college, professor Mark Chesler encouraged me to study and apply conflict theory to the civil rights movement, which led me to become a social justice activist. And in law school, another professor, Jeff Bauman, helped me get my first job as a lawyer. Last year I had a chance to tell him — to his total surprise — how important he is in the story of my life. I’m so glad I did that.
A few years later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 12 years my senior, helped me begin my career as a women’s rights lawyer, opening the door to the meaningful work I’ve done ever since.
I never thought of these caring adults as “mentors.” But as I think about that term today, I realize that they were. Mentoring just wasn’t a common concept when I was growing up, despite the fact that it had been around for centuries, ever since Homer named Odysseus’s son’s teacher “Mentor.”
I wasn’t surprised when the National Mentoring Partnership (MENTOR) reported last year that 20 percent of adults 50 and older said they didn’t have a mentor when they were growing up — that would have been my answer, too. But I wonder what the response rate would be if the question was asked not about “mentors,” but about “caring adults outside your family.”
I wonder, too, if terminology explains why the same MENTOR survey finds that adults over 50 are significantly less likely than younger adults to be willing to participate in a structured mentoring program. When asked about being willing to mentor informally, the generational difference disappears.
I’ve done both. At Strive for College, a structured program, I’ve been a virtual mentor, helping a high school senior apply to college. I’ve mentored several young people I’ve gotten to know through the Segal Citizen Leadership Program. And I’m informally coaching others who reach out to me because of people we know in common.
The structured programs have an advantage: They connect me with young people I would otherwise never know. The resulting relationships go beyond the familiar, reaching across race, class, gender preference, geography and other divides.
Nine million young people in America grow up without a mentor’s guidance — and I’m pretty sure I’m not finding any of them through my informal mentoring. So this winter I’m thinking about the organizations that can help me connect with young people across divides. I want to widen my own experience and get the chance to make a difference in the life of someone I’d otherwise never meet.
If you’re interested in becoming a mentor:
- Start by searching the Mentoring Connector, the only national database of youth mentoring programs that connect volunteers to opportunities in their local communities.
- If you are a former amateur Olympic-Style boxer or fan and want to volunteer as a coach or official to help at-risk youth find a positive pathway to adulthood, contact Lynette Smith of USA Boxing at [email protected].
- Find out how to become a Big Brother or a Big Sister to a young person in your community.
- Or sign up with Strive for College to help young people virtually — via video, phone and email — apply for college.