Observations from the Summit: The Evolution of Mentoring

Last month, we sent a team of Summer Search staff to the 2018 National Mentoring Summit in Washington, DC. Our National Director of Research and Evaluation, Salem Valentino, Ph.D., shared her reflections from the conference in this guest blog post.


This is my sixth year as a researcher in the field of mentoring and also my sixth year attending the National Mentoring Summit. While that may not seem like an extensive period in anyone’s professional career, the field of mentoring has rapidly evolved during those six years.

SS-staff-group-MENTORSummer Search staff at the 2018 National Mentoring Summit. From left to right: Seth James Ellis, Antonio Brown, Stacey Thompson, and Salem Valentino.

In fact, this is what makes this conference such an exciting event for Summer Search as a national mentoring organization. The Summit serves up provocative research findings, an ever-lengthening selection of evidence-based resources, and a diversifying set of attendees who represent and support all facets of mentoring programming.

Here, I will take a few minutes to summarize Summer Search’s experience at this year’s Summit, as well as how I’ve witnessed the evolution of the mentoring field and what makes Summer Search so well-positioned to trail blaze.

Daring to Lead

The theme of the 2018 Mentoring Summit was “Building Relationships, Advancing the Movement.” Over the years, Summer Search has built a strong relationship with the organizers of the Summit, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. This year, we were proud to step up and be a Supporting Partner of the conference, which shines the light on the importance of mentoring relationships in young people’s lives.

In addition to spending two and half inspiring days connecting with many mentoring partners and industry leaders, we were also thrilled to lead our own presentation called “A Seat at the Table: Building a Best-in-Class Alumni Program,” which outlined ways for organizations to keep their alumni communities involved as volunteers, donors, board leaders, and more.

This session, which was led by our National Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coordinator Antonio Brown and National Director of Alumni Strategy and Development Seth James Ellis, was a great opportunity for Summer Search to step to the head of the table to showcase some of our unique innovations.

Using our successful Alumni Network as an example, they discussed how creating an effective alumni engagement program takes careful planning, a solid strategy, and consistent, quality engagement through managing data, effective communication, alumni giving, and leadership development. They also shared how our engaged Alumni Network played a crucial role in providing feedback that allowed us to enroll more Black and Latino males in Summer Search.

Kelem and Summer SearchFrom left to right: Kelem Butts, Director of Charitable Operations at AT&T, Antonio Brown, Salem Valentino, and Summer Search CEO Dr. Marc Spencer. AT&T supported our Males of Color Initiative to enhance student outreach practices so that more young men have the chance to join our program, stay engaged, and reach their college dreams.

Breaking the Traditional Model

In reflecting on the field of mentoring as a whole, historically, the common practice has been to rely on adult volunteers who commit to spending unstructured time with their mentee a few times per month for a minimum of 12 months. This has been the classic mentoring approach used by many organizations.

While there is evidence that this model does provide some benefits to students, the positive effects are consistently small across multiple rigorous research studies, and the pool of adults who are willing to volunteer their time to be mentors is only around 1% of the adult population in this country (Raposa, 2017). Given these results, the field is beginning to ask what could be done differently to ensure young people benefit from those adult relationships that will most help them to be successful.

Importantly, a “one size fits all” approach to mentoring has become obsolete, while population-specific models demonstrate promise for increasing effectiveness. For instance, adolescents from low-income backgrounds report having fewer mentors — either informally outside of organized mentoring programs or formally — than their more privileged counterparts, which contributes to differences in networking opportunities that promote college and career success (The Mentoring Effect, 2014). In addition to reporting fewer mentors, these youth tend to drop out of mentoring programs at a higher rate (Kuperschmidt, 2017).

In summary, the traditional mentoring approach described above may not be as effective for this population of young people. Summer Search has developed an approach to mentoring that is built upon the principles of adolescent development. We welcome students into our program as high school sophomores because we recognize the value of growing systems of support around a young person during a time when they are expected to make major decisions that affect their futures. Most importantly, our unique model utilizes professional staff mentors who receive extensive training and support, rather than volunteers, so that we may best support youth on their paths to success.

Developing New Approaches

Beyond tailoring the mentoring approach to the needs of a particular population of youth, the actual approach itself is broadening to no longer exclusively utilize “friendship-based” mentoring. For instance, representatives from the TEAM Mentoring Program shared how they extend the one-to-one model to bring together three mentors and six students to develop a unique team with its own identity and group culture.

Mentoring programs are also engaging in more curriculum-based mentoring approaches, like Chicago Scholars who discussed their four-month mentoring model that utilizes “career mentors” who focus on skill-building such as resume development, networking, and career exploration. The Connected Scholars Program represents another curriculum-based approach to adolescent mentoring that prepares youth to seek adult mentors upon starting college.

At Summer Search, we are also trying new approaches. With the conclusion of our Group Mentoring Pilot this year, we will have evidence for how a group-based model that utilizes a curriculum may promote even stronger outcomes for our students and allow us to support more young people on their journeys to and through college.

Mentoring for Youth Empowerment

Finally, the mentoring field has begun to embrace and formalize how mentors can partner with youth to undo generations of systemic oppression. This mentoring approach is often referred to as “Critical Mentoring.” This work has spearheaded a movement away from resilience-based models that tend to overly focus on youth and their ability to survive harmful circumstances, and towards a strengths-based approach focused on young people thriving and healing.

Plenary sessions at this year’s Summit were far less likely to feature a cute kid and their awe-inspiring mentor, and instead showcased individuals who spoke to the traumas experienced by young people today and who raised a call-to-action for field leaders to more adeptly address youth wounds. As Dr. Wizdom Powell expressed in her riveting speech, we must shift the narrative away from asking “What’s wrong with young people?” to “What’s happening to our young people?”

At Summer Search, in response to feedback from our alumni and program staff, we are committed to codifying a Critical Mentoring approach for our students, acknowledging the “everydayness of racism” — as our partner Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan of the Youth Mentoring Action Network puts it — and empowering youth to be the experts of their own lived experiences. We believe this approach will best prepare our students to succeed in today’s world.

Torie and Summer SearchFrom left to right: Stacey Thompson, Salem Valentino,
and Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan. Dr. Weiston-Serdan led the Summit’s final plenary session.

As we know, to mentor is to harness the potential of human relationships to benefit young people. With decades of research and countless individuals speaking to the power of mentoring, the possibilities of this approach have only barely been realized.

Summer Search has always utilized an approach that exists outside of the traditional mentoring box – paid mentors, mentoring partnered with summer experiential opportunities – and similar to the larger field, we continue to push ourselves towards an approach that is the most responsive and the most beneficial to the young people we serve. Based on what I observed at this year’s Summit, we are not only on track with advancements in the field, we are well positioned to remain ahead of the tide.

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