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Learn how to determine if a mentoring program is what you need.


  • What is a mentoring program?

  • Why should you set up a mentor or partnership program?

  • How do you decide whether to set up a mentor program?

One-on-one instruction, or mentoring, is one of the oldest forms of teaching. Our parents and grandparents are our earliest mentors; later, we may be mentored by--or act as mentors to--brothers, sisters, and friends.

The word mentor comes from Mentor, who was a wise friend of the mythical Greek warrior Odysseus, and who took charge of Odysseus's son Telemachus while the hero was fighting the Trojan war. Mentor's name is derived from the Greek men, to think or use ones' mind, and mentos, mind, intention (acting with a mindful purpose), or force (mindful action). The word is closely related to thinking (as in mental activity), to paying attention (as in, for example, "mind your manners"), to warning or disciplining, and so on. Accordingly, Mentor teaches Telemachus reason and thinking ability, and gives him attention, discipline, and care.

Odysseus's name is closely related to odyssey, a perilous journey, as well as odussos, meaning irritable. One may say that Odysseus represents someone who has embarked upon a perilous journey filled with annoyances. This may be an apt description of life for many overworked parents today, with little time to spend with children and younger adults.

Telemachus, Odysseus's son's name, is derived from tele, roughly meaning distant, and machia, meaning battle, fighting, war, or contest. This, in turn, is derived from the Sanskrit word majman, meaning greatness, and machairo, meaning a hard, sharp object, such as a blade or tooth. Telemachus may represent either a distant fighter or a distant sword that is hard, sharp, and possibly dangerous in the wrong hands--a description of many distant youth.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus leaves his homeland to fight in the Trojan War. Before he leaves, he places Telemachus in the hands of his trusted friend Mentor, who is to raise the boy should Odysseus perish in the war. During his voyage, Odysseus irritates a few gods who, in their effort to destroy him, keep him at sea for many years. Upon his return home, Odysseus finds that Mentor has molded Telemachus into a fine young man through his mindful instruction. Telemachus then helps Odysseus slaughter the noblemen who, believing Odysseus dead after 10 years, have begun to flirt with Odysseus's wife, Penelope.

Thus, the world's first mentoring program ended with the slaughter of noblemen caught flirting with a seemingly widowed woman. This is perhaps not the outcome we are striving for in our youth mentoring programs, but it was certainly considered a glorious and heroic outcome for the people of ancient Greece! From this brief history, we may make a few assumptions regarding the functional aspects of mentoring programs. We may surmise that a mentor is one who, using all aspects of mind, guides a potentially lost and certainly distant youth to an outcome of honorable, self-sufficient adulthood, often in the absence of a strong parental influence.

Mentor programs work because they provide encouragement and guidance to each adolescent or child that participates. This introductory section offers a general discussion on the rationale behind such programs and outlines the advantages they provide. Pointed questions will help you decide if you want to begin a mentoring program, and an overview of the rest of the sections in the chapter is given.

What is a mentoring program?

Mentor or partnership programs connect people who have specific skills and knowledge (mentors) with individuals (protégés) who need or want the same skills and advantages to move up in work, skill level, or school performance. Participants in mentor programs , both young and old, share their values and personal goals in a mutually respectful, supportive way which leads to a more enriched life for both. Therefore, a successful mentor program helps break down barriers and creates opportunities for success.

Why should you set up a mentor or partnership program?

There are many benefits of such programs for both the mentor and the protégés:

  • Among youth in mentoring programs, there have been recorded increases in:
    • Self-esteem levels
    • Regard for and comfort with members of other races
    • Ability to maintain satisfactory relationships with other adults
    • Decision-making ability in the career-choice process
  • Mentoring programs may noticeably increase school attendance among protégés in a mentoring relationship
  • Roles of non-familial adults in the lives of at-risk children have been shown to be beneficial in increasing resiliency and success in the face of adversity
  • In programs that specialize in youth mentoring, people from outside a youth's everyday world cooperate to ameliorate a youth's situation, giving the community a stake in her or his future
  • Mentor programs open new opportunities and understanding for mentors and protégés previously unavailable due to too many barriers, prejudices, or lack of options
  • Mentor programs offer a cheap, fast way to pass valuable skills and knowledge from person to person
  • Passing opportunities along from one person to another helps ensure that those living in a community have the ability to maintain and improve it
  • Being a volunteer mentor is an honor. Mentors and role models have a chance to "show off" their skills and enjoy successfully teaching someone something new

Good reasons for starting a mentor program

  • Partnership programs give people who don't have many life options hope for a better future
  • Mentoring builds everyone's self-esteem
  • The knowledge and alternatives gained through a partnership program allow teens and adults to explore different career possibilities not often available in a classroom or work setting
  • Mentor programs break down stereotypes surrounding certain professions and populations. Mentor relationships promote awareness of a community's diversity
  • Partnerships build teamwork, whether learning occurs in school or on the job. Partnership programs provide great publicity for the mentor, who can show off her experience, and for the protégé, who can show off her new, marketable skills.

How do you decide whether to set up a mentor program?

Mentor programs set up learning/helping relationships between two adults, between an adult and an adolescent, or between two adolescents. The kind of mentoring program you choose will depend upon the goals your protégés want to accomplish, but the name of the game in all mentor programs is to increase opportunity and break down barriers.

When thinking about whether or not to establish a mentor program in a school, workplace, or neighborhood, answering the following questions can help you decide if it is the right idea for you.

  • What are the advantages of a mentor program over another strategy to get people involved with the community, young people, and their futures?
  • Is a mentor program an appropriate strategy for the population you want to reach?
  • What will youngsters, employees, or community members gain from having a mentor?

The next point to consider is the type of mentoring program you want. Three different types are possible: adolescent-adolescent, adult-adult, and adult-adolescent. Although this chapter focuses primarily on adult-adolescent (youth) programs, many of the skills discussed can be transferred to either of the other types of program.

Before going further, however, let's look at the different kinds of relationships that develop and different activities to achieve protégés' goals in each of the three types of mentoring programs.

Adult-adolescent mentor programs:

  • Mentors provide adolescents with concentrated adult attention otherwise missing from their lives
  • Adults can model the importance of education, hard work, responsibility, and restraint as paths to success
  • Young protégés build self-confidence as they are accepted and supported by the adult world
  • Adults experience "the best of parenting" (this includes the development of a meaningful relationship with a youth, the chance to pass on a personal history, and the chance to teach) without the pressures of being legally responsible
  • Adult mentors broaden adolescents' horizons and expose them to new experiences not available in their immediate environment

Adolescent-adolescent mentor programs:

  • Mentoring usually focuses on improving academic performance and school attendance
  • Students can provide peer tutoring, support and counseling
  • Adolescent mentors have fewer expectations and put less pressure on their protégés to meet their goals
  • The grades of both student mentor and student protégé generally greatly increase when combined with tutoring

With adult-adult mentor programs:

  • One adult trains a new or promoted employee "on the job"
  • An experienced employee who is retiring or taking on a new assignment might "groom" another employee to replace her
  • One adult teaches another job skills so the protégé can find a better job after training is complete
  • The organization benefits from the protégés more rapid acquisition and understanding of job skills and corporate culture

Even though goals vary from program to program, organized mentoring is anchored in the belief that we can "reinvent" ourselves. That is, anyone can enhance his or her situation, surroundings, and level of success by becoming actively involved in his or her own self-improvement.


Now that you've become more familiar with mentoring, the rest of the sections in this chapter will discuss the basics of setting up a program, including:

In Summary

From Mentor's guidance of Telemachus to a "Big Sister's" work with a troubled girl today, we have seen the importance caring adults and young people can make in each other's lives. A mentoring program that is both well-planned and well-run has a tremendous impact on the lives of many, many people.

Lorraine Claassen
Thurman Williams

Print Resources

Freedman, M. (1993). The kindness of strangers: Adult mentors, urban youth, and the new volunteerism. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Lawrie, J. (1987). How to establish a mentoring program. Training and Development Journal, 41(3), 25-27.

Blocher, K. (1993). Factors in sustaining adult voluntary mentoring relationships with at-risk youth. University Microfilms International. (UMI Dissertation Services No. 9329930).