1999 Conference Proceedings

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OPENING DOORS: MENTORING ON THE INTERNET

Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler
Dr. Steve Nourse
University of Washington DO-IT
4545 15th Ave NE Seattle, WA 98105

Most of us can think of people in our lives, more experienced than ourselves, who have supplied information, offered advice, presented a challenge, initiated friendship or simply expressed an interest in our development as a person. Without their intervention we may have remained on the same path, perhaps continuing a horizontal progression through our academic, career, or personal lives.

The term "mentor" has its origin in Homer’s Odyssey when a man named Mentor was entrusted with the education of the son of Odysseus. "Protégé" refers to the person who is the focus of the mentor. Today, mentoring is associated with a variety of activities including teaching, counseling, sponsoring, role modeling, job shadowing, academic and career guidance, and networking.

DO-IT Mentors are valuable resources to their protégés in project DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). Most Mentors are college students, faculty, practicing engineers, scientists, or other professionals and have disabilities themselves. Protégés are participants in the DO-IT Scholars, Pals, or Camper programs. These teens are making plans for post-secondary education and employment. They all have disabilities including vision, hearing, mobility, and health impairments, and specific learning disabilities. Frequent electronic communications and personal contacts bring DO-IT protégés and mentors together to facilitate academic, career, and personal achievements.

Introducing protégés to mentors with similar disabilities is a strength of the DO-IT program. As reported by one protégé, she had never met an adult with a hearing impairment like hers before getting involved in DO-IT: "But when I met him, I was so surprised how he had such a normal life, and he had a family, and he worked with people who had normal hearing. So he made me feel a lot better about my future."

Participants learn strategies for success in academics and employment. Mentors provide direction and motivation, instill values, promote professionalism, and help protégés develop leadership skills. As one Scholar noted, "It feels so nice to know that there are adults with disabilities or who know a lot about disabilities, because I think that people who are about to go to college or start their adult life can learn a lot from mentors . . ." As participants move from high school to college and careers they too become mentors, sharing their experiences with younger participants.

There are probably as many mentoring styles as there are personality types and no one can be everything to one person. Each DO-IT participant benefits from contact with several mentors.

Most mentoring in DO-IT takes place via the Internet. Through electronic communications and projects using the Internet, mentors promote personal, academic, and career success. Electronic communication eliminates the challenges imposed by time, distance, and disability that are characteristic of in-person mentoring. For example, participants who have speech impairments or are deaf do not need special assistance to communicate via electronic mail. Those who cannot use the standard keyboard because of mobility impairments, use adaptive technology to operate their computer systems.

DO-IT encourages one-to-one communication between protégés and mentors via electronic mail. It also facilitates communication in small groups through the use of electronic discussion lists. For example, one group includes both mentors and protégés who are blind. They discuss common interests and concerns such as independent living, speech and Braille output systems for computers, and options for displaying images and mathematical expressions.

While most communication occurs via electronic mail, some mentors meet their protégés during summer study programs at the University of Washington and at other DO-IT activities across the United States. In-person contact strengthens relationships formed on-line.

The DO-IT program received national recognition with The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mentoring "for embodying excellence in mentoring underrepresented students and encouraging their significant achievement in science, mathematics, and engineering." It was also showcased in the President’s Summit on Volunteerism and received the National Information Infrastructure Award "for those whose achievement demonstrate what is possible when the powerful forces of human creativity and technologies are combined."

Research

DO-IT has conducted an extensive research study on the nature and value of electronic mentoring. More than 12,000 electronic mail messages were collected, coded, and analyzed; surveys were distributed to Scholars and Mentors; and focus groups were conducted.

Results of this study suggest that computer-mediated communication can be used to initiate and sustain both peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships and alleviate barriers to traditional communications due to time and schedule limitations, physical distances, and disabilities of participants. Both young people and mentors in the study actively communicate on the Internet and report positive experiences in using the Internet as a communication tool. The Internet gives these young people support from peers and adults otherwise difficult to reach, connects them to a rich collection of resources, and provides opportunities to learn and contribute.

Participants note benefits over other types of communication, including the ability to communicate over great distances quickly, easily, conveniently, and inexpensively; the elimination of the barriers of distance and schedule; the ability to communicate with more than one person at one time; and to meet people from all over the world. Many report the added value that people treat them equally because they are not immediately aware of their disabilities. Negative aspects include difficulties in clearly expressing ideas and feelings, high volumes of messages, occasional technical difficulties, and lack of in-person contact.

This study demonstrates that peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships on the Internet perform similar functions in providing participants with psychosocial, academic, and career support. However, a higher percentage of correspondence between mentors and protégés than between peers involve communication about academics, careers, disabilities, technical issues, the DO-IT program, and college transition.

On the other hand, peer-to-peer communication includes more personal information than communications between mentors and protégés. Responses to the survey and focus group questions also reflect a stronger social attraction between peers. These results suggest that peer-to-peer communications relate more to the psychosocial domain, as peers devote energy to developing friendships, whereas mentor-protégé relationships emphasize information exchange related to academic, career, and other areas of a practical nature. Each type of relationship has its unique strengths.

It is often reported in the literature that peer and mentor support can help students with disabilities reach their social, academic, and career potential. However, constraints imposed by time, distance, and disability make such relationships difficult to initiate and sustain. This study suggests that practitioners and parents should consider using the Internet as a vehicle for developing and supporting positive peer and mentor relationships.

For more information about this study, contact the DO-IT office.

Getting Started

Following are a few suggestions for new DO-IT Mentors.

DO-IT Electronic Resources

To contact staff, request publications or ask questions about the program, send electronic mail to: doit@u.washington.edu To send a message to all DO-IT Mentors, Scholars, and Pals, send electronic mail to one of the following addresses:

 mentors@u.washington.edu 

doitkids@u.washington.edu 

doitpals@u.washington.edu

DO-IT Mentors are automatically subscribed to the doitsem discussion list which covers issues pertaining to individuals with disabilities and their pursuit of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology academics and careers. To send a message to the group use the following address:

doitsem@u.washington.edu

For information resources related to DO-IT, disabilities, adaptive technology, science, engineering, mathematics, and post-secondary education, access the DO-IT World Wide Web page at:

http://weber.u.washington.edu/~doit

About DO-IT

Project DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) is a program that works to increase the successful participation of people with disabilities in challenging academic and career fields such as science, engineering, mathematics, and technology.

Primary funding for the DO-IT project is provided by the National Science Foundation and the State of Washington. The University of Washington also contributes substantial resources.


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