This article was first published in Journeys Magazine, Summer 2017.
Creating a solar battery pack, writing a nature guidebook, founding an improv theater league, developing a space station experiment—the sky’s no limit for SAS high school students working on Catalyst projects! But how do these students find adults who know about such specialized topics and can help them on their way? Enter the mentors.
At SAS, mentors play a crucial role in our high school programs. The semester-long Catalyst course allows juniors and seniors to develop a unique, personally compelling project. Integral to a successful Catalyst experience is finding and working with a mentor. Center of Innovation co-ordinator Dennis Steigerwald notes that this element of the course was included very deliberately. “A key ingredient to success in our heavily networked world is finding and learning from more experienced individuals in one’s field of interest,” he explains. “Teaching Catalyst students these skills in a safe, structured environment will be of great value to them as they move through higher education and into careers.” Quest students also work on Catalyst projects with mentors (see box on page 8). With Catalyst a graduation requirement next year, all SAS students will have at least one experience working with a mentor during their high school years.
Unlike a teacher or coach, a mentor is selected by the student, who seeks help on a specific project. The student directs his or her own learning, while the mentor provides perspective, feedback, and suggestions based on expertise and experience. A mentorship gives a student an unusual and often inspiring chance to work one-on-one with a professional in an area of interest. Mentorships support the school’s commitment to personalized learning, as they allow a student to focus on a topic of interest—even a highly specialized one—and work with an expert in that field. These partnerships also further the SAS desired student learning outcomes (DSLOs), especially collaboration, communication, content knowledge, and critical thinking. Over the past two years, SAS, working with strategic partners, has developed an effective, large scale mentoring program. Rather than trying to match students with mentors, we follow the “youth-initiated recruitment” model: students themselves find mentors, with SAS faculty providing support and direction. Students are taught how to create and leverage a professional network; how to develop an efficient working relationship; how to appropriate dress, behave, and communicate in a professional setting; and how to effect closure when the project is complete. Mentors are briefed about their responsibilities and sign the Mentor Memorandum, acknowledging the school’s expectations and requirements. The student collects written or video samples of interactions to record how the mentoring relationship progresses.
This year, 170 students found Catalyst project mentors. Meetings may take place via phone or videoconference, so mentors need not be in Singapore. Allen Wang, for instance, wanted to write a series of political articles, so he looked up “best political blogs” and was impressed by a California-based weblog. “I emailed the editor-in-chief and got a positive result literally five minutes later,” he says. “When I finish an article, I email it to him and he gives me feedback. For my Africa articles, he put me in contact with his friend who is an ex-banker and ex-lawyer and has a master’s degree in Middle Eastern political studies.” Other students value face-to-face meetings, like Alexis Ma, whose project is an epistolary memoir. “I find it beneficial to talk to my mentor [an SAS writer-in residence] in person, as I can ask clarifying questions and request further suggestions,” she says. Some students also visit mentors at work, like Ruth Jaensubhakij. “My mentors work hands-on with special needs students,” she explains. “The fact that they’ve given me the chance to do that myself and sit in on their classes has really contributed to my project.”
Around half our students find mentors through parents or friends. Ruth, for instance, found her mentor through her church. “When I mentioned that I was looking to connect with a music therapist, my friend offered to put me in contact with one she knew from work. She talked to my mentor about my project in person, then gave me her email, which is how we initially made contact.” For students who need help finding a mentor, the center of innovation maintains a list of over a hundred “connectors,” adults in various fields who can put students in touch with willing professionals. This approach has proven highly successful. No matter how students and mentors connect with each other, both parties must fill out a protocol so Catalyst teachers can ensure the match is appropriate. Besides helping with a specific project, mentors may open students’ eyes to the realities of the work world and the demands of a particular profession. “I learned a lot about maintaining a professional relationship—especially being accountable, responsible, and timely,” says Ruth. “Responding to emails quickly, not being late to a session, making sure to use the right language, thanking them (a lot of thanking was involved!) for how they helped me—[these are] all really good skills that I hope to be able to apply to future endeavors.” Allen learned about the less glamorous side of journalism. “It was surprising to hear how stressful journalism can be; outside of reading and writing articles on politics, you have to deal with hackers and trolls a lot of the time,” he notes.
In the end, most students find their mentorships extremely rewarding. For Alexis, “every aspect of it has been phenomenal. Through the mentorship experience, I have learned to keep my mind open and allow different perspectives to influence my project.” Allen has been inspired by finding “really exceptional people out there in the world, who not only bear amazing credentials, but have an enthusiasm and energy that make you feel encouraged and excited about your own interests.” Our generous mentors give SAS students the chance to be educated and inspired about their current passions and their future possibilities.
Interview with a mentor
Samuel Coronado, entrepreneur and business development consultant
Why did you volunteer to mentor an SAS student?
My wife works at SAS, and I saw a natural fit between my professional experience and skill set and the innovative, project-development experiences of SAS high school students. I’ve co-founded two entrepreneurial ventures and consulted on many more, and I know that exposing students to new trends, tools, and solutions is extremely important, as they will soon be an active part of this reality.
Who was your mentee, and what was the project?
Zoe Adamopoulos is developing a business idea combining a passion for clothing and fashion with a desire to help others. She wants to design clothing and accessories and hire vulnerable people, identified through NGOs, to produce them. She will then sell the items through online platforms.
How did you provide feedback and encouragement?
Zoe Adamopoulos introduced herself via email, and we continued to interact, mainly through emails. I came to school two or three times, and we met in the library and the Makerspace.
How did you enjoy the experience, and why?
I was pleasantly surprised. Few things are more fulfilling than watching energetic, smart, and self-driven young people direct their energy towards something that will impact others, especially if they are doing this for more than just financial reasons. I think it is our responsibility as adults to help kids understand the many available resources, to share with them our experiences, and to help them ask the right questions and reach their own conclusions.
Would you mentor a student again or recommend the experience?
Yes! In fact, I am doing it again, working this semester with another SAS junior. I would recommend mentoring because it’s a great learning experience for the mentor as well as the mentee, as it keeps you connected with the next generation’s world. You can use your existing skills to guide them, while learning something new in return. It’s a win-win situation!
Final thoughts about mentoring at SAS?
I find it so interesting that SAS kids are developing projects in areas like coding, writing, and fashion design. This multi disciplinary environment creates opportunities for collaboration between people with many different backgrounds and interests. The kids are eager to listen to different viewpoints, to explore them, and to experience things for themselves. Mentoring is a great opportunity to help them out while enjoying this interesting process and keeping connected with SAS.
Click here to read more articles from Journeys Magazine, Summer 2017.
- Personalized Learning and Facilities