Can you remember your late teens and early 20s? That time of endless choice and decision-making when you had little in the way of experience or self-awareness to anchor or guide you? Young people’s decisions during this time of their lives are vital, not only to them, but to all of us – here’s why.
So, how can we engage with young people who are making these big transitions to help them excel, and become their best?
Whether we are learning something about ourselves or about how things work – there is a hugely social component to learning. The more young people can develop a range of relationships with the people around them, the more they learn. At the heart of healthy human development, are relationships.
When we interviewed a number of people about the one thing that opened up opportunity for them when they were young, nearly all of them identified a relationship with another adult (generally older or more experienced than themselves) as being key in unlocking something within themselves or in the world out there.
They spoke about mentors who walked alongside them and asked great (often challenging) questions; they spoke about managers who helped them hone their ideas and thinking; they spoke about role models who had the right experience and know-how to provide practical tips and information directly relevant to their lives. Overall, these mentor-mentee relationships were experienced as positive, inspirational and empowering; they were highly valued and they had a significant impact on their lives.
People are constantly engaging in these naturally occurring relationships – relationships in which one person’s developmental needs match another person’s expertise and know-how. These are often informal and casual, and yet they can have significant spin-offs and benefits. They can be formed with many people and many times in our lives – from extended family members, peers and neighbours to teachers and colleagues in our places of learning and work. The roles can also change – where I was once a mentee, now I can become a mentor, and vice versa.
Research from around the world shows how having a close relationship with a caring, competent adult (other than one’s parent) can provide both protection from adversity for young adults, as well as open up important opportunity – helping young people to avoid difficult situations and reach their full potential.
How can you foster a relationship with a young person that enables learning?
In order to become successful, you must have a vision. Plan something for your life, explore life and go to other places. Get out of your comfort zone and start your own thing. Education is not something that you get at school only; you also learn through your mistakes, you also learn through other people.
I wouldn’t say I had a role model. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to start my own thing. I want to be the mentor that I never had.
This year I have to come up with a plan that will get me an income. I want a business mentor – someone who is going to focus on my business, and help me see how to grow it. But I also want a personal mentor, someone who is going to focus on me and give me guidance on life. I’m a human first. Before the career, I’m human.
Aimed at enhancing the life chances of young people and children, formal mentorship programmes typically create and coordinate structured mentoring opportunities that larger numbers of mentors and mentees can participate in.
Evaluations of mentorship programmes have shown that the majority of such programmes effectively help young people to be more aspirational, to pursue opportunity, and to make choices and engage in behaviour that improve their own life chances. Given that we have such a large youth population in South Africa, we don’t have enough programmes that provide a platform for the mentoring of young people across the country.
A survey by US-based organisation ‘MENTOR: The National Mentorship Partnership’ revealed that young people who had mentors reported setting higher educational goals and were more likely to attend college than those without mentors. High expectations and higher educational attainment are key factors in life success. Young adults who had mentors, particularly those at-risk, were more likely to report engaging in productive and beneficial activities than youth without a mentor. These activities translate into the higher self-esteem and self-confidence that are necessary traits for youth to engage in teamwork and community work, and to be successful in life.
To have a look at the supporting statistics click here.
You don’t need to start an NGO to offer more formal mentoring opportunities. It can be as simple as partnering with an NGO/educational institution to create opportunities for your staff to mentor young people (or perhaps you want your more experienced staff to mentor the young interns or apprentices working at your organisation), or by forming a group of mentors within your church, community organisation or even among your friends.
How can you start a mentorship initiative?
The Orbis Foundation assigned me an Industry Mentor and she happened to be the person who is now my boss. We spoke about many things and sometimes I alluded to some of the things that were happening at home. She asked me if I had considered working at Allan Gray. We started to ask why Fellows from Allan Gray Orbis Foundation scholarship, who aspired to work in asset management, are not working at Allan Gray. That’s when I decided to try and get a job with Allan Gray. So now she is my boss – she’s an incredibly intelligent woman. Like all relationships, we have our differences at times. She has taught me so much about problem solving, modelling and building my numerical ability.
Mentoring, coaching or developmental relationships that improve young people’s sense of agency, belonging and competence have the following characteristics:
From the Mentor’s Field Guide, which summarises the research describing what is key to maintaining strong mentor-mentee relationships.Drawn from a helpful article by Jean Rhodes for The chronicle of evidence-based mentoring. Access here.
For more about the issues that young people typically struggle with, read here.
A really useful comment someone made to me early on was that I had an instinct for public health and that I could see things differently. I didn’t realise that I could see things differently. That was really helpful… I guess I was a bit intimidated by the number of letters behind people’s names in terms of degrees and specialisations, and here I was fresh out of medical school. What I realised – in time – was that relative inexperience was a blessing; it had worth. I could look at things through different eyes; I could really struggle to understand what was going on, instead of trying to locate it in a particular academic theory or what others had said about it.
That’s helped me as I have looked for people to work with in my career. I haven’t necessarily looked for people with many degrees behind their names. That’s why I have really enjoyed working with younger people – people who demonstrate big potential but don’t necessarily have the experience under their belts. They are lean and hungry, and want to explore ideas. That’s the reality I have found most useful to work with. So I look for people who are willing to think differently, to look at a problem differently, and to carve out their own path. It stemmed from someone who looked at me and was willing to affirm what I was bringing to the table, even though I didn’t have all the qualifications.
Dr. David Harrison, CEO DG Murray Trust
DGMT Interview – The one thing that opened up opportunity for me
The reality is that not all relationships work. If you have tried mentoring and are uncertain whether you are doing it right, here are some signs that the relationship isn’t working or that you may need to get support and advice. Don’t give up, though! There is a young person out there to whom you will be just the person they need!
In mentoring lies a huge opportunity for us as South Africans. It requires relatively little time, money or resources for the significant return it can yield. Imagine if each one of us committed to this kind of developmental relationship with a young person? We have ten million young people on the brink of becoming adults; young people who will contribute to our families and communities, our economy and society. Let’s support them to be the best they can be and to create the type of society we dream of living in.
I am a young person. How can I get a mentor?
By fostering relationships with young people that enable learning. Through such a relationship you show interest in and support for a young person’s life; you challenge their growth; and you connect them to information, opportunities and networks. Find out here how to foster such a relationship with a young person.
In South Africa, we have a large youth population (nearly 20 million), with half of these young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years. Ten million young people deciding where and what they will study (whether it’s Grade 10 subjects or the type of tertiary education and institution that meets their goals and interests). Ten million young people shaping their identities around independence, responsibility and learning to live, work and study with other adults. Ten million young people on the brink of becoming adults who will contribute to our families and communities, our economy and society. We should support them to help create a society that is more equal, where there is better education, a stronger economy, better health, less crime, public violence and more social cohesion.
The classic work of Vygotsky (1934) points to the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition. Vygotsky argues that through social interaction, we both discover things and make meaning of them.
Relationships are core to our existence. Not only do they impact our learning and development, they are essential to our general health and wellbeing: “Social isolation and low levels of social support have been shown to be associated with increased morbidity and mortality in a host of medical illnesses. The effect of social support on life expectancy appears to be as strong as the effects of obesity, cigarette smoking, hypertension, or level of physical activity”.
The pioneering work of Ann Masten, in which she looked at resilience among children and young people at risk, shows that there are a number of factors that enable better adaptation to adversity. She identified factors at an individual level (e.g. problem-solving abilities, intrinsic motivation and capacity for self-control) as well as factors within the context at large. Having a close attachment to other connected adults (other than one’s parents or family) was identified as making a key difference to someone’s resilience and ability to recover from setbacks. Another benefit of a close relationship with a caring adult is that by modeling care and providing support, mentors can challenge negative views that youth may hold of themselves and demonstrate that positive relationships with adults are possible. In this way, a mentoring relationship may become a “corrective experience” for youth who have experienced unsatisfactory relationships with parents or other caregivers (Hayes, Castonguay, & Goldfried, 1996 in DuBoise et al, 2011)
In the US, for example, an umbrella organisation called ‘MENTOR: The national mentoring partnership’ works closely with over 5 000 mentoring programmes serving more than three million children and young people. This organisation has benchmarked six key elements of effective practice for mentoring programmes – these focus on recruitment, screening, training, matching and initiating, monitoring and support, and closure. If you are interested in mentoring for the sake of starting a mentorship programme, MENTOR is a good place to start with helpful information and information resources to get you going.
In South Africa, we have a large youth population (nearly 20 million), with half of these young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years. Ten million young people deciding where and what they will study (whether it’s Grade 10 subjects or the type of tertiary education and institution that meets their goals and interests) (link to pathways map). Ten million young people shaping their identities around independence, responsibility and learning to live, work and study with other adults. Ten million young people on the brink of becoming adults who will contribute to our families and communities, our economy and society. We should support them to help create a society that is more equal, where there is better education, a stronger economy, better health, less crime, public violence and more social cohesion.
From a psychology study of over 300 American young people between the ages of 18-29 over a period of five years, the following five features of emerging adults were identified:
This will be similar for many young people in South Africa, except that they face a host of other challenges too. According to the South African Child Gauge, most young people in South Africa live in poverty and the quality of education is so poor that it often doesn’t develop young people’s potential and skills adequately. Educational drop-out is high; unemployment among youth is exceptionally high; and access to tertiary education is wrought with a myriad of challenges, e.g. poor access to information, high fees, etc. To read more about the challenges that South African youth face have a look at the following:
Despite these challenges, marketing research on South African youth repeatedly shows that they are optimistic about the future. This is a very good thing. Let’s build on their optimism and help them to not be disappointed!
“Generation Next 2016”, a publication by the Sunday Times, will give you some good insight into South African youth and what they have going for them.