iMentor Builds Digital and Personal Bonds Between Students and Role Models

January 22, 2014 at 1:10 pm

iMentor pairs high school students with one-on-one mentors over a 4 year period.  MetroFocus’ Rick Karr examines the program’s progress at the Academy for Software Engineering in Manhattan.

For many high school students, the path towards obtaining a degree, building professional goals, and finding a career often demands additional support.  Yet a study conducted in 2013 called “The Mentoring Effect” found that one in three young people will reach adulthood without connecting with a mentor of any kind.

“You need additional adults who are constantly going to be in the ear of that student, constantly be looking out for opportunities, resources that might help them take that path toward college,” said Seung Yu, principal of the Academy for Software Engineering (AFSE) near Manhattan’s Union Square.

In the fall of 2012, the school paired its entire freshman class with a mentor, in hopes that the additional guidance would help students’ prepare for careers in technology.  But matching hundreds of students with an appropriate mentor is no small logistical or financial feat, and AFSE couldn’t do it alone.

Cue iMentor, a New York-based nonprofit which matches public high school students in one-to-one relationships with college-educated professionals who can serve as role models.  Conceived by Blue Ridge Capital founder John Griffin and two public interest lawyers, and launched with only 49 students in the South Bronx in 1999, the organization currently serves over 3,000 students in New York City, and an additional 2,700 students nationwide.

MetroFocus’ Rafael Pi Roman talks to Mike O’Brien, CEO of iMentor.

“John [Griffin] could look and see the Bronx from his office window and the idea was, these communities that are so physically proximate to one another don’t actually benefit from connecting into New York City’s true diversity,” Mike O’Brien, CEO of iMentor, told MetroFocus’ Rafael Pi Roman in an interview.

In the spirit of harnessing diversity and crossing community boundaries, iMentors send emails on a weekly basis and meet with their students face-to-face once a month.  iMentor staff find, train and coordinate mentors, then work with the schools to manage the relationships.  iMentor also runs classes integral to the school’s curriculum which are designed to help students develop soft skills, such as setting goals and critical thinking.

“College completion is the primary goal. College readiness is the first step,” said O’Brien, who launched iMentor’s national partnership program, iMentor Interactive, in 2006.

One of the challenges iMentor has faced has been how to scale their programs to facilitate both flexibility and structure.  iMentors must commit to their students for 4 years, while mentoring programs across the board have seen shortages in professional, college-educated volunteers.  Part of the solution has been structuring programs within the schools, where mentors don’t require a background in education or child development.  iMentor privately raises funds for approximately 80% of program costs, so schools generally pay what it costs to have a single counselor in the school.

“When we partner with a high school, they don’t need to recruit the mentors; they don’t need to provide the case management for these relationships.  What they need to do is help us deeply integrate what’s going on in these relationships with what the students need and what’s already going in that school,” said O’Brien.

In a speech during his College Opportunity Summit in January, President Obama highlighted iMentor‘s commitment to match 20,000 new students with mentors over the next 5 years.  January is National Mentoring Month.