Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: The power of a mentor

Harmful and cumulative effects of concentrated poverty, specifically untreated trauma and violence, have a large impact on the academic aspirations and attainment of young people. Exposure to neighborhood trauma has a direct effect on lowering academic achievement.

According to the study “Dont Quit on Me” by America’s Promise Alliance’s Center for Promise, housed at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, a web of support from parents, adults in school and friends can buffer adversity, with a positive effect on likely continuous school enrollment. Children want relationships, but many students living in poverty suffer from relationship poverty —  a lack of access to additional sources of support that can lead to a more promising future. In this instance, social support from mentors is imperative.

A strong mentoring relationship can contribute to an ongoing sense of emotional well-being. The unconditional support from a mentor has the capacity to inspire academic and emotional change, leading to greater self confidence. For students who have faced adverse life experiences, feelings of self-doubt and self-worth are often present. Adversity can often render trauma, leading the mind to become stuck in stress response cycles.

According to psychological research, school-aged children and adolescents react differently to trauma. School-aged children may become preoccupied with their own actions during the event, experience guilt over how they did or didn’t react or be overwhelmed by feelings of fear and sadness. Adolescents may experience shame or guilt and have strong emotional responses about themselves, such as becoming self-conscious about their reactions. This can foster a radical shift in the way young people think about the world and may cause them to engage in self-destructive behaviors, including drug use. The mentoring relationship, that statistically increases self confidence, can directly cut into these negative feelings.

First- and second-generation immigrant youth also have room to benefit from a mentor. Some are the first in their family to go through the education system in America and need to learn English as a second language, while others lack parental academic support due to language barriers.

Some students even hold heightened responsibility as the translators for their parents — all of which construct a new notion of childhood with additional emotional labor central to its core. This makes the mentoring experience all the more important for this population as well.

In our society, we have a dominant culture created by the norms, values and attitudes of the middle and upper class. Subcultures form in response to holding different social norms and less privilege. From this class difference comes the idea that youth with a low socioeconomic standing are disadvantaged as compared to their middle- and upper-class peers. The social norms, values and and attitudes of the dominant culture are called “cultural capital.” This form of capital promotes upward social mobility in society.

Cultural capital is usually transmitted from parents to their children, but I believe that mentors can transmit it as well. Life is about the human relationship. Being a mentor  is not a supplement to the needed increase in resources available to low-income citizens, but it can certainly fill gaps of need and change the course of a person’s life. In return, you might just gain a lot as well.  

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