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The Power of Relationships: Leveraging Mentoring for Greater Educational Outcomes

By: Max Polaner 09 Mar 2018

Editor’s Note: The below post is part of our Alumni for Impact series, which features alumni who are making a difference in the social sector, specifically in K-12 education, impact investing, nonprofit supportive services and social entrepreneurship.  Max Polaner (MBA 1997) is the Executive Director of iMentor NYC, a nonprofit that fosters mentoring relationships to help students graduate from high school and college. 

“I know he will always be there for me.  He helped me with a lot of stuff…from colleges, to finding out what I want to do, and finding out who I want to be.” – New York City mentee

“Seeing him become more confident and focused has been an awesome experience.  He’s starting to think bigger – about college, his career, and his future.  In turn, he has challenged me to think bigger about the world.” – New York City mentor

Mentoring is one of oldest ways that people have found to connect with each other and be changed in the process.  One would think that quotes like these would seem like old hat, and yet, stories of successful mentoring relationships still inspire.  Here are two strangers – not bound by family and in fact often intentionally matched due to their differences in history and circumstance – who nevertheless connect and, more than that, are transformed by the experience.  Especially in a world that seems so divided by difference, it feels remarkable that such connections can occur at all.  But they do – over and over again.

The goal of iMentor is to unleash the intrinsic power of mentoring – at scale and with consistent impact – to enable young people to achieve their highest educational and career aspirations.  While there can be a natural power to a mentoring relationship, it is not easy to create and is even more difficult to sustain.  iMentor tried to tackle three challenges traditionally faced by mentoring programs:  how to match thousands of students with mentors rather than a handful, how to ensure that these relationships are all impactful rather than a small percentage of them, and how to bring the power of mentoring to every young person, not just those who might opt-in to a mentoring relationship.  Leveraging technology, a structured curriculum based on the latest social science research and a hands-on case management support model, iMentor has brought into being over 25,000 mentor/mentee relationships between high school students and college graduates since it was founded 18 years ago. 

Mentors make a minimum of a 3-year commitment to their mentees and engage with them weekly online and monthly in person through high school completion and into the post-secondary years.  Mentors are volunteers who are college graduates and bring their educational and professional experience to our students who attend public high schools.  The majority of our mentees will be the first in their family to attend college and over 80% come from families whose income lies below the poverty line.  

The impact of these relationships is measurable.  We are tracking the post-secondary outcomes of over 6,000 high school graduates, and the data shows that iMentor students are 35% more likely to complete high school and 85% more likely to graduate college than their peers who were not in the iMentor program. 

The iMentor mission spoke particularly powerfully to me.  I had worked in education before HBS as a middle school math teacher and then, trying to put my joint degree with the Kennedy School to good use, joined a charter school network as their CFO to help them grow from serving 900 to over 12,000 students over 10 years.  But as a privileged white male, I always felt some disconnect between my background and the students I was trying to serve.  iMentor flipped that narrative.  It helped me see the power that can come from difference – as long as one understands that that power flows both ways.  As Executive Director of iMentor NYC, I have learned more from watching what makes our pairs work – and seeing it myself as a mentor in our program – than I have through any other professional experience.  

This work gives me hope – and yet makes it even more stark how little of that kind of understanding exists today.  If the power of mentoring seems so obvious, why are transformative relationships across difference so rare?  It is because, as mentioned earlier, they are not easy to create and even harder to maintain.  There are forces that make relationships difficult to form and try to pull them apart once they do.  Some of these are innocent, like the challenge of finding time, traveling across distance and bridging natural gaps in understanding.  Others are less innocent, like the biases we all carry which can make us unable or unwilling to be the open person needed for a successful relationship.  iMentor has shown that an intentional, strategic and committed approach can overcome those challenges.  It is hard work – but hard to imagine any work more worth doing.

More information about iMentor is available at imentor.org. Twitter: @iMentor