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January 15, 2021

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Written by
Bettina Cisneros
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October 27 is National Mentorship Day, a time to reflect on those who’ve shaped our paths and helped pave the way towards our better selves. Parents should take this day to consider how they can connect their children with mentors whose guidance could change their future.

For too long, parents looking to boost their high schooler’s chances at college acceptance have focused on test preparation. Collectively, we’ve poured billions of dollars each year into these services, often garnering minimal incremental gains. There are alternative investments that could have a greater impact, not just on students’ college chances, but on improving their lives fundamentally.

With all Ivy League universities and 65% of all four-year colleges going test-optional this year, we now have a unique opportunity to move away from test-prep obsession, restructuring how we invest in students’ futures to prepare them not just for college, but for life.

To do so, we need to help high schoolers discover what they are most excited about, and how they want to contribute to the world. Such self-discovery doesn’t happen magically overnight: it is an iterative process of exploration, connection and reflection. A mentor can lead the way in this journey, helping spark a latent interest or connect the dots across seemingly disparate strengths, shedding light on ways to move forward.

Catalyzing mentorship is perhaps the best way a parent can support their child’s intellectual maturation. When my children were in high school, I read Path to Purpose by William Damon of Stanford’s Center on Adolescence. He found in his studies that most of the purposeful youth he interviewed had found mentors who “helped them discover, define and pursue their quests in many ways. In the process, the youngsters acquired the capacities to successfully discover, define and pursue purposeful missions on their own.”

I saw the value of mentorship firsthand when my dad introduced my son to the world of urban development, sparking an interest in him during 9th grade that still drives him as he completes his senior year in Urban Planning at Cornell University. It started with two weeks of my son shadowing his grandfather at his real estate advisory firm. He joined meetings, learned the intricacies of New York City zoning, and worked on a report of possible obstructions for a new development’s views. Initially, this was intended simply to offer a different summer experience — over time, it evolved into mentorship.

There are numerous ways a student might connect to a mentor. They can reach out through family or friends, or follow up with a favorite educator from school or summer programs. They can reach out directly to individuals working in their field of interest, or through paid mentorship programs that take the legwork out of making such introductions. Mentorships benefit from structure and time spent together on a project, so approaching potential mentors with a goal in mind — even if simply assisting on their work — is ideal.

Mentors are uniquely positioned to help students discover and pursue their interests. As experts with years of lived experience, they help students build confidence and understanding, allowing them to pursue projects at a level many couldn’t achieve independently. Unlike traditional academics, mentors can help students apply knowledge across subjects, learning how their different interests might interconnect, translating to real-life solutions. A student interested in origami, math and engineering could study the geometry of folding to build a foldable solar cell prototype, or a student might harness their interest in photography and sustainability to educate others about climate change.

By encouraging students to take what they already care about and learn how to amplify and extend their work, parents catalyzing mentorship not only create value for their children, they do so for the larger world, which relies on fresh ideas and innovation to solve our greatest problems.

Of course, it’s important not to rush into mentorship before a student is willing to take on the responsibility such an endeavor requires. Students need to acknowledge that a mentor is not a tutor or babysitter, but someone who expects them to engage fully. But this is precisely where the magic of mentorship lies: it’s the stepping stone between instruction and independence that allows the student to take ownership of their own intellectual and creative capabilities. Additionally, not every mentorship will automatically reveal a student’s greater purpose, but there is always value in the experience: learning what you’re not interested in can help students make more informed choices when figuring out what to pursue next.

Looking towards our kids on National Mentorship Day, we should consider how to connect them to adults who can help them step into their own independence. By supporting mentoring relationships for our high schoolers, we can help them realize their purpose, ultimately empowering them to design a better world for us all.