Discovering what makes mentorships work
Mentoring relationships can be educational, inspirational, and fun. As the Duncan and Cindy Campbell Professor for Children, Youth and Families in the PSU School of Social Work, Thomas Keller studies a wide array of mentoring programs and relationships, from those geared toward youth, to college students, to adults in the workplace.
One of the challenges of mentoring is that it can place people in an unfamiliar type of relationship.
While people are used to voluntary, equal-status relationships such as those between friends, or vertical relationships with authority figures, mentoring falls somewhere in between. As a result, some mentors try to steer the relationship into more comfortable territory, becoming either a buddy or a boss.
But Keller says that young people find those relationships that stay in-between to be the most valuable. “You’re not going to be seen as cool for acting like friends their own age, so don’t try,” Keller tells adults volunteering as mentors. “Be yourself, share your experience, show you care, and offer opportunities they can’t get from their friends—that’s what makes a mentor special.”
Keller has organized the annual Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring, which brings prominent researchers and experienced professionals who direct mentoring programs from around the country to PSU for a week of intensive discussion of what’s working—and what’s not—in the field of mentoring.
Keller is also directing PSU’s new Center for Interdisciplinary Mentoring Research, bringing together faculty from social work, sociology, psychology, business administration, computer science, and other departments around campus to collaborate on new directions for research on mentoring. These researchers are examining mentoring as it occurs across different developmental stages and in various settings, including youth programs, higher education, and the workplace.
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