Innovations to Close the Mentoring Gap

Everybody Would Agree That Mentoring Is Important For Positive Youth Development. However, Millions Of Adolescents Will Grow Up Without A Mentor In Their Life. Learn More About The Ways One University Tries To Close This Gap.

“Before meeting my mentor, I was thinking I’d never succeed, that I’d just live with my parents my whole life until I get kicked out because I’m such a problem. But then I met my mentor and got the support that I needed. Now, I feel like if I want to do something, and it’s something that I really want to do, I will do it no matter how many people tell me I can’t.  Talking to my mentor helps me because she tells me that I can do it and she supports me.”

-paraphrased quote from an adolescent female participant in the Campus Corps program

The idea that mentors matter is not particularly new – the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring organization (BBBS) has been providing opportunities for positive adult relationships for vulnerable children and adolescents for over 100 years. In fact, for many of us, it is safe to say we are where we are today because of mentors (both informal and formal) who helped us along the way. Yet, despite the powerful promise of positive adult-youth mentoring relationships, as illustrated in the quote above, an estimated 16 million 8-18 year olds, including 9 million at-risk young people, will reach adulthood without connecting with a mentor of any kind (MENTOR, 2014). Unfortunately, this means that roughly one-third of all at-risk youth do not have the opportunity to build a mentoring relationship that could positively impact multiple developmental domains (i.e., emotional, behavioral, academic; DuBois, Portillo, Rhodes, Silverthorn, & Valentine,  2011). Thus, innovations are needed to close the gap between the number of children who could benefit from mentoring and those who actually receive mentoring. Described below are results of two studies exploring components of a youth mentoring program designed to overcome barriers to closing the gap.

One potential reason for the current mentoring gap is a shortage of volunteers to mentor youth. The lack of volunteers may be due to ineffective recruitment strategies to reach volunteers or a misfit between mentoring time expectations and mentors’ busy schedules. Additionally, although well-intentioned, some mentors fail to fulfill their commitment to the mentee which can result in unintended negative effects (Britner & Kraimer-Rickaby, 2005; Grossman & Rhodes, 2002). To decrease the number of vulnerable youth entering young adulthood without having a formal mentor and increase the rate of successful relationships, strategic efforts are needed to increase the pool of committed volunteers.

University students enrolled in well-designed service-learning courses may be the answer, especially for structured, time-limited mentoring programs. Because students are provided high-quality training and supervision as well as college credits as part of the experience, they are more likely to be well-equipped, effective mentors who fulfill their commitment. Furthermore, if the experience is positive, the mentors are likely to mentor in the future, thus assisting in the closing the gap further.

An example of how to utilize university students in mentoring at-risk youth is the Colorado State University Campus Corps (now Campus Connections) program. In this program students from over 65 different majors work one-on-one with youth ranging in age from 10-18 who are referred from community partners, such as the school district and the juvenile justice system.University students enroll in a 3-credit service-learning course in which they complete a 20-hour mentor training, as well as weekly discussions, academic readings, and assignments that are both reflective and applied. Each week of the 12-week program, mentors also provide four hours of mentoring to youth. Mentors provide academic support and career planning, encouragement for positive social skill development, assistance with goal setting, and related wellness programming through prosocial activities. Because Campus Corps occurs entirely on the university campus, youth experience firsthand the possibilities of education and the importance of learning. Campus Corps provides each youth with a primary one-to-one mentoring relationship that is situated within a larger mentoring setting in which youth have opportunities to build positive relationships with similarly aged peers and additional adult mentors – a concept referred to as Mentor Families. Mentor Families organize four mentor-mentee matches into small groups that participate in activities together.This unique feature allows youth to positively interact with their peers while benefiting from their primary adult mentor and the community of caring adults within their Mentor Family. This structure also provides mentors with support and supervision from fellow mentors.

In our papers published in the Journal of Community Psychology and the American Journal of Community Psychology, we explored participants’ experiences of Mentor Families and evaluated the benefits derived by college students from mentoring youth. A forthcoming paper will also report on the benefits derived by youth. Findings of the Mentor Family evaluation suggest that Mentor Families provide support to mentoring dyads and increase satisfaction of participants, as a result of experiencing a supportive hierarchy and safe community to which one can belong and grow. In particular, mentors described the supportive, supervisory nature of Mentor Families which allowed them to feel more present and accessible to their mentees. Mentors witnessed mentees forming positive, prosocial relationships with peers in their Mentor Families, as well as mentors other than their own. Importantly, youth described the Mentor Family environment as a place to belong and matter. Mentees reported learning through conversation with other mentees and mentors. Mentees expressed the change they noticed in their own attitudes and behavior as a result of having additional role models to look to.

In terms of benefits derived by mentors of youth in Campus Corps, study results indicated that participation in Campus Corps was associated with significantly higher scores related to mentors’ civic attitudes, community service self-efficacy, self-esteem, interpersonal and problem solving skills, civic action, and political awareness, as compared to college students who did not participate in Campus Corps. Through participation in Campus Corps, students reported motivation and empowerment to become civically-engaged citizens. More specifically, students reported the belief that it is every person’s responsibility to use their time and talents to help solve social problems. Moreover, students reported personal commitments to remain civically engaged in their community in the future.

Mentoring, in all its forms, can provide youth with unique opportunities to build a positive, caring relationship with an important adult. Yet, innovative program strategies, such as utilizing college students and situating mentor-mentee pairs within Mentor Families, may provide additional opportunities to effectively recruit, train, supervise, and retain quality mentors for vulnerable youth. Although we are just beginning to investigate the win-win impact of Campus Corps and the role of Mentor Families, our initial findings suggest that Campus Corps provides a satisfactory, positive experience for mentees and mentors. Importantly, nearly 95% of mentor-mentee pairs who begin the program successfully complete it, suggesting the feasibility of utilizing college students as mentors of at-risk youth to close the mentoring gap.

Lindsey Weiler, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado and the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect.  Dr. Weiler earned her doctoral degree in Applied Developmental Science from Colorado State University where she co-developed and researched the impact of Campus Corps, a mentoring program for at-risk adolescents.  For her work examining the process by which mentoring prevents substance abuse, Dr. Weiler was awarded a pre-doctoral grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Her research is focused on developing, testing, and optimizing theoretically-grounded prevention and intervention programming to promote healthy development in adolescents and young adults, particularly those at risk. Within this work, she aims to examine for whom, and under what conditions, interventions are most effective.


Britner, P. A., & Kraimer-Rickaby, L. (2005). Abused and neglected youth. In D. L. DuBois, & M. J. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring (pp. 482-492). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd.

DuBois, D. L., Portillo, N., Rhodes, J. E., Silverthorn, N., & Valentine, J. C. (2011). How effective are mentoring programs for youth? A systematic assessment of the evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Sage Publications Inc.)12(2), 57-91. doi:10.1177/1529100611414806

Grossman, J. B., & Rhodes, J. E. (2002). The test of time: Predictors and effects of duration in youth mentoring relationships. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 199-219. doi: 10.1023/a:1014680827552

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