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A Mentor for All

“Wouldn’t it be great if every student had a mentor?”  I can’t remember who said it, but I’m certain we were all thinking it.  Several of the TPI program staff recently had an opportunity to sit down with our colleagues at The Boston Foundation to share what we’re doing in the college access and success space.  While the mechanics of what we’re each doing is different – we’re working with very different populations of students, we’re providing different types of support – a theme threaded its way throughout the conversation: Mentoring, advising, guidance, coaching.  Call it what you will, it’s helping students complete college.


TPI has been designing and administering college access and success programs for funders for over a decade.  We don’t call them scholarship programs because they’re not just about paying the semester tuition bill – they’re about providing the “extras” students need to survive and thrive in college.  Those extras look a little different in every program, but can include flexible financial support (book money, bus tickets to and from school, flights for study abroad, etc.), peer connections, career networking, and mentoring.  The students we work with are low income, often among the first generation in their families to attend college, and are academically accomplished.   Many have shown resilience throughout their lives, often overcoming tremendous obstacles before they’ve even entered college.  Some might argue that these students would succeed in college regardless, but we’ve found that without guidance, many would not cross the finish line.


The Boston Foundation, through Success Boston, is working with a very different set of students.  With the goal of doubling the college completion rate of Boston Public Schools by 2017, Success Boston targets those most at risk for not completing.  Among other supports, each student is paired with a Transition Coach who helps students navigate the transition to college, overcome barriers, and access resources at school and in the community.


The students are different, the problems are similar, and mentors/coaches are helping them through.  I recently interviewed about 90 high school seniors across MA for three of our programs that pair college scholarship recipients with mentors.  When asked which part of the program they’d benefit from most (the money, the mentoring, or other supports), students overwhelmingly responded that having a mentor would be the most beneficial.  They were hungry for that built-in support system.


Exit surveys of scholars graduating from the Janey Scholars Program – the first and longest running of the programs administered by TPI offering extra supports – show that the support students received from their mentor was just as helpful, and in many cases more valuable, than the monetary support they received.  One 2011 graduate writes, “I’ve kept very close track of all the physical things (stipends, book money, computer, and planet tickets) that the program has provided me, but I think the most valuable part of the program was the continued support, understanding, and encouragement that I received from great role models that money alone can’t provide.”


Every year I’m astounded at the number of applications we receive for the programs we administer.  Every year it’s hard to turn students down.  This year we received nearly 850 applications from across Massachusetts for about 60 slots in three of our programs.  There’s so much potential in those stacks of applications.  The scholarship spots we have to offer are finite and limited by the number of donors we have to support them.  But if what we’re seeing is true – that mentoring, advising, guidance, and coaching are sometimes as valuable as financial support, then wouldn’t it be great if every student had a mentor?  Are there ways to make this a reality?  Whose job should it be?  High schools, colleges, nonprofits, foundations?  How do we get more people involved?

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