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Scott Bellman, MA, LMHC, CRC
Sara Lopez, MA
DO-IT at University of Washington
Phone: 206-685-3648 (v/tty)
DO-IT has been studying the nature and value of electronic mentoring since 1993. Thousands of electronic mail messages have been collected, coded, and analyzed; surveys were distributed to Scholars and Mentors; and focus groups were conducted.
Preliminary findings suggest that computer-mediated communication can be used to initiate and sustain both peer-peer and mentor-protege 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. They include 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 the opportunity 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.
Preliminary findings of this study suggest that peer-peer and mentor-protege relationships on the Internet perform similar functions in providing participants with psycho-social, academic, and career support. However, each type of relationship has its unique strengths. For example, peer-to-peer communication includes more personal information than exchanges between mentors and proteges.
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.
Proteges offer Mentors . . .
Challenge - Mentors develop their own personal styles for sharing their skills and knowledge via electronic communication. Opportunities to Help Set Goals - One Mentor explains, "I try to tell the kids to listen to their hearts and think about what they really want to do. Don't listen to people who say no, you can't do this or that, or you should be thinking only about this kind of work; just think about what you really want to do, what turns you on, and go for it." A Chance to Share Strategies - Mentors pass on hard-earned experiences. As reported by one Mentor, "I've been through this thing. I had a stroke and so on. And I find it incredibly gratifying to be able to share that with someone, and to be able to help someone else who's going through some of the same things." New Ideas - Mentors join an active community of talented students and professionals with a wide range of disabilities who are eager to share their own strategies for problem-solving and success.
Mentors offer Proteges . . .
Information - Mentors share their knowledge and experiences with proteges. Contacts - Mentors introduce their proteges to valuable academic, career, and personal contacts. Challenges - Mentors stimulate curiosity and build confidence by offering new ideas and opportunities. Support - Mentors encourage growth and achievement by providing an open and supportive environment. Direction - Mentors help proteges discover their talents and interests and devise strategies to attain their goals. Advice - Mentors make suggestions to help proteges reach their academic, career, and personal goals. Role Modeling - Mentors accomplish many of these goals by letting their proteges know who they are.
DO-IT Mentors are valuable resources to their proteges in project DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). Most Mentors are college students, faculty, practicing engineers, scientists, or other professionals who have disabilities. Proteges are participants in the DO-IT Scholars, Pals, or Campers programs. These students 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 proteges and mentors together to facilitate academic, career, and personal achievements.
Introducing proteges to mentors with similar disabilities is a strength of the DO-IT program. As reported by one protege, 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 proteges 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 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 proteges 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 proteges 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 proteges 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 achievements demonstrate what is possible when the powerful forces of human creativity and technologies are combined."
Following are a few suggestions for new Mentors.
Burgstahler, S., & Cronheim, D. (2001). Supporting peer-peer and mentor-protege relationships on the internet. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 34(1), pp. 59-74.
Burgstahler, S. (1997). Peer support: What role can the Internet play? Journal of Information Technology and Disabilities, 4(4). http://www.rit.edu/~easi/itd/itdv04n4/article2.html
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