By MELANY TRENARY
Life is full of contradictions, and many times our efforts do not seem to make sense. In our fast paced lifestyles, we expect to see results quickly and tend to give up even quicker. However, as we see in the story of the ugly duckling, beautiful swans can emerge years down the road. Those who may have caused the flower to bloom, ironically, may never know that it was the result of their fertile soil, gentle rain, or bright sunshine that helped produce the beauty.
We have many similar old and new proverbs…
“The most challenging things in life become the most worthwhile.”
“Never stop being foolish.” Bill Gates
“Patience is a virtue.” “Good things come to those who wait.”
How does mentoring fit with these sentiments? Mentoring can present some of the most difficult challenges from every angle, but I believe the benefits outweigh the trials both for the mentored and the mentors. Having experienced short term aid trips to third world countries, I know those who serve gain more mentally, emotionally, and spiritually than the served. The service of mentoring is an incredible gift to a community exemplified by Big Brothers Big Sisters’ website sharing that “95% of mentored youth report improvement in educational success…89% improve their ability to avoid risky behavior”. (bbbs.org)
For the above reasons, I have fought multiple entities to place college students as mentors in county public schools for over five years. Each year, organizational details have to be reworked both in the schools we serve, and with the college students who serve. Most college students have as their main goal graduation and a subsequent career or graduate school. Service learning is rarely on their radar unless they are building their resume to reach that milestone. Initial reactions to the mentoring assignment are generally far from exuberant. In their recent past, the concept of “community service” may have had a punitive ring due to its mandatory nature for high school graduation or a civil citation.
It is never an easy venture to motivate students to become mentors. The benefits must be explained, and the task must be related to course goals and grades. Significant credit must be awarded in order for the experience to be taken seriously. (For example, mentoring hours are usually worth 20 percent of the total grade in my classes.) I have also learned that pretests, such as a short answer to the question, “Do you currently feel engaged in your local community?” are helpful in beginning critical thinking on the part of the students. Posttests and final presentations provide valuable feedback; students hear from their peers as well as analyze and vocalize their personal experiences. It is in these moments that any prior bumps in the path of the orchestration become minute, and the positives are brilliantly displayed. The following are a sampling of such triumphs from posttests:
“Dealing with the kids has definitely increased my patience/tolerance level and taught me that middle school is really the most crucial stage in these kids’ lives. I’ve learned a lot of things about myself such as how I seek acceptance from others, even if they’re younger than me. I learned that I need to work on not constantly worrying about what others think about me and just be me. Coming from an urban environment, I wouldn’t have thought that the kids in this rural community dealt with the same problems that I was seeing back home. Mentoring is something that I definitely want to do again next semester, but I don’t want to just do it for just 45 minutes once a week, I want to have a bigger impact on my mentee’s life so I plan on becoming a Big Sister.” Communication Student, May 2016
“When mentoring, my level of contribution to our community increased significantly because I am forming better relationships between diverse groups of children. Mentoring has motivated me to get more involved with the youth around our community. The experience has changed me personally because now I have better communication skills with young kids in a school environment. I have improved the way I think about conflicts between the kids by understanding the conflict process. My plan is to continue mentoring so I can fulfill my need to contribute to our community and make Salisbury a better place for kids.” Communication Student, May, 2016
In organizing a service learning project, anything that can happen usually does, and each semester comes with its own unique logistical issues. I place between 25 and 70 students in the public schools around our university every fall and spring term. Their commitment is one hour per week for ten weeks. Our semesters are typically fifteen weeks in length; therefore, the time frame allows for training, breaks, and absences. Consistency is the key to building relationships with the mentored. The kids are in need of mentors for a variety of reasons from single parent households to more serious issues, setting the stage for immediate challenges. One might decide it would be easier to find a service assignment that does not include “people”, but “if it is not messy it probably is not worth it” (another proverb).
Communication with the community partner is the determining factor. Mutual respect and positive outcomes for all involved must be the ultimate goal. First steps include face to face meetings to decide boundaries and logistics. Listening is a necessary skill. I have found innovative and supportive partners to work with, and have been truly blessed. As a human communications lecturer, course concepts are easy to relate to mentoring whether there has been minor or major relationship development. For students who do not think they have made a difference, I assure them that an ounce of kind support goes a long way. Perseverance is the key in most acts of value. Remember, you may not see your own swans emerge or flowers bloom, but it could happen! Therefore, I challenge anyone who has never given mentoring a try to get involved with a local mentoring program. I believe you will be amazed at the life you change, and it will probably be yours. The following testimonial says it all:
“Whereas before mentoring, I was only in Salisbury, Maryland for attending Salisbury University, now I see that there is so much more I can do to become civically engaged in the community. I plan on continuing my mentoring with C. with the hope that I can help him become as aware and interested in helping others and himself, just as I have become.” Communication Student, December, 2014
Interested? Not sure where to start, check out Big Brothers Big Sisters-bbbs.org-in your area. I personally work with the Wicomico Mentoring Project in my area.
Melany Trenary is a human communications lecturer at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland where she has taught for over 18 years. She mentors two students, one currently in community college and one entering middle school. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions and comments.
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