How Mentors Can Help Youth of Color Not Get Caught Up as "POWs" in PWIs

by Torie Weiston-Serdan

I've been running a college access centered mentoring program since 2007. Since that time I have actively cultivated mentoring relationships with high school youth and acted as an institutional agent with the intention of helping low-income, first generation, and young people of color to gain access to higher education institutions. To this end, myself and the mentors within my organization have sent 98% of over 300 young people to college. Of those we have sent, 100% of those have stayed in school until graduation or are still in college working towards their degree. In our own way, we have been working to slowly plug away at the higher education access gap, especially the gap that exists in the Inland Empire of Southern California.

I remain proud of that work, but in the last few years I have begun, more and more, to question the meaning of this work. I believe in the promise of solid education for people of color. I believe that education, at least as our system currently exists, is an essential stop on the route to closing the wage gap, desegregating neighborhoods, and increasing the numbers of people of color in professional careers. More importantly, I believe that a true and critical education can be the epicenter of collective consciousness.

However, in the wake of a continuing struggle to gain equity; i.e. Black Lives Matter and Black Spring, we must look closely at all of the issues and we must alter our trajectories. This means taking a second look at what we are getting in higher education.

On any given day you can stroll through social media feeds or watch the news to find story after story of students of color enrolled at predominantly white institutions dealing with both covert and overt racism and prejudice. From blackface parties and racist chants to lack of institutional representation among students, faculty, and staff. It seems our students of color are often trapped in a sort of war. A war in which their complete person—mind, body and soul—is under continual attack. Whiteness curriculum dominating the educational landscape, microaggressions plaguing their daily experience, too few faculty of color to connect to, and a constant wrestling with double consciousness constitute continuous dangers in a seemingly innocuous space.

Our young people are told by parents, schools, and mentors to go to college to improve their current circumstances and so they work hard and many of them do go on to a college or university, but only to be confronted by other forms of the same issues and all of this while now paying an often hefty tuition. Mentors aiming to support youth of color in accessing higher education institutions must begin to work more critically, ensuring that beyond mentoring to support access to college, we also mentor to support youth as they learn to navigate spaces that can be and often are destructive to their well being.

1. Help protégés to find the right fit.

Many young protégés don’t really understand the dynamics of college. They know they want to attend school, but they aren’t often sure how to pick the right institutions or what aspects of a school need to be considered to see if it’s the right one. Mentors must aid their protégés in making the right decision. Look up the institution’s diversity statistics, visit the campus if at all possible, and while there chat with current students. Ask questions of staff in offices and really try to get a feel for how you might be treated. This is typical college application advice, but too few students do it and campus culture can really decide whether a young person will thrive academically and personally.

2. Set expectations.

I’ve had far too many conversations with protégés who go off to top PWI’s and experience shock and dismay at the lack of diversity on their campus. Many of them come from high schools that are pretty diverse and have a hard time adjusting to campuses that are primarily white. Mentors should have critical conversations with protégés about what it means to be within the minority status—that it might feel lonely and that the youth’s concerns are reasonable. College is a new experience and most high school students know very little about it. Part of what mentoring for college access should aim to do is share the ups and downs of attending predominately white institutions and setting reasonable expectations for what life may be like.

3. Continue the mentoring relationships past high school.

College students are in need of as much guidance as high school youth are. My program aims to establish long-term mentorships, but not all do. Mentors who are critical and have the aim of supporting college going should plan to extend their support while the protégé is in college, at least until they can be certain the protégé has acquired a supportive network on campus. Especially in the case of first generation students, a mentor often makes all of the difference in college retention. Supporting protégés in making that transition, being available to hear them out when needed and to help them navigate issues they encounter are pivotal.

4. Encourage protégés to connect to strong support networks inside of their institution.

It is universally understood that supportive networks are critical to college success. Mentors must encourage their protégés to tap into these networks. My program has established a large enough network of protégés that we often connect present youth with graduates of our program now attending colleges and universities. However, it you are mentoring outside of a program it is essential to help your protégé identify a group or groups they can be part of. These groups don’t have to be formal, but they have to be supportive and they have to be positive.

5. Support protégés in making changes within their institutions by partnering with them if possible.

Finally, as the bolder of our protégés begin to take on the process of making needed changes within their institutions, support them! Critical mentors have already planted these seeds by speaking with their protégés about being leaders and about standing for change. So as they move forward in that process, mentors must partner with them to make these changes. They must be a sounding board, assisting them with resources and helping them to navigate processes.

Mentors cannot continue to focus on college access without asking critical questions and having critical discussions. Stakes are high, the cost of college is rising, and our youth are becoming prisoners of war in this ongoing battle to increase diversity in predominantly white institutions. Critical mentors are essential to providing the guidance and support youth need.

Photo: Shutterstock

Torie Weiston-Serdan is an educator and founder of a mentoring non-profit organization called the Youth Mentoring Action Network.

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