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Paying it forward, with mentoring or mocha

By Joshua Kukowski

I had my first “pay it forward” experience at a coffee shop recently and I was confronted with a choice: should I continue the trend?   I had no scientific evidence that paying it forward to the next coffee drinker would be a good thing to do. I just knew.  I bought the next person a cup of coffee.

Mentoring is like that. There are now 15 years' worth of research proving that mentoring helps young people succeed.  But mentors do it because they just know.

Mentoring is more than a trendy program that can be seen as a quick way to increase enrollment, get funding or show the value of your program.  But like most afterschool or out-of-school programs, mentoring isn’t cute and it’s nothing new.  There are standards for mentoring programs, much like standards for our students in public schools and much like standards for home construction.  Each of these standards comes from validated research and gives benchmarks for improvement.

The research does nothing to take away from the strength of locally developed best practices.  Researcher and author Jerry Sherk said it best: “Mentoring can be summed up as three things:  Relationship, Relationship and Relationship.”

On a recent trip abroad, I noticed that mentoring was happening without formal research behind it there, too.  I visited a foundation in Columbia that was supporting youth through direct one-on-one relationships and through group and peer mentoring.  I asked a mentor how the program was going and about the benefits. He looked at me like I was silly and said, “This isn't a program and we don’t do it for benefit. We do it because it is important.”

In my opinion, blending best practices from research and the experience and wisdom of local leaders is the recipe for mentoring success. In fact, it’s what mentoring programs are all about. How do you combine the two? Are they aligned? Do they validate each other? Do they compete or conflict with each other in any way? How do you facilitate those conversations?

-- Joshua Kukowski, Extension educator

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  1. Thank you Josh for submitting this blog topic. It is very important that when starting a mentoring program to be authentic about mentoring. Doing mentoring just to do it or because it is a new buzz word or because you might get some grant dollars is not the way to think about mentoring. Mentoring is a life changing process for both the mentor and the mentee. I would agree with Josh that mentoring is the ultimate way of giving back. Thank you Josh for posting this important blog post.

  2. Thank you Josh, for this blog post. Mentoring, whether formal or informal, will always be an important part of youth success--one of the 40 development assets focuses on caring adults (outside the immediate family) that young people can connect with, and for a young person, knowing that their mentor is choosing to opt-in and be there for them, can be a really powerful and life-changing experience. Thank you for referencing the work we do at Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota ( We have spent over 20 years helping organizations across the state create and implement effective, high-quality, sustainable mentoring programs, and we are proud to play a role in the development of healthy and happy young people!

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  3. What a fun post, Joshua. I love the simple description of mentoring being about relationships, and I love even more your story about the program in Columbia. Sometimes, we do the things we do simply because we know it works. I admit that I feel very restricted by some mentoring research, because my own experience defies what some research claims as best practice. Yet I think it is very important to keep a balance and an open mind to both personal experience and research. There are limits to both, and both are equally important to informing our own way of being when it comes to youth work. The "infinitude" of what works directly matches that of the individuals we support with mentoring and other youth work practices.


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