Mentoring: A Promise of Youth Success

What does it mean to be an "adult"? One hundred years ago, you were considered an adult at age 18, or even younger by societal definitions. In 1904, the year Big Brothers Big Sisters was founded, it was not uncommon for school-age children to spend long days working in their parents' fields or operating machines in industrial factories.

I do think it was once true that you could be self-sufficient at 18. Even in the mid-twentieth century, a high school diploma and good work ethic was enough to succeed, to be able to provide for a family. Over the last century, BBBS has worked with tens of millions of people who have a passion for serving youth and also believed that getting to 18 was a great indication of a productive life ahead.

For the children we serve, more than 60 percent are the first in their family to graduate high school, to not have their own child before 18 and to not become incarcerated. But despite being the first to receive that diploma, it's no longer enough to ensure success. Let's face it--high school is not enough to support a family.

Today, to support yourself and a family without government assistance, a postsecondary education is essential, be it trade school (at a minimum) or college (strongly preferred). Starting at a two-year school isn't necessarily the answer, either. In fact, a study by Harvard University found that of those who started at a community college, only one in 50 earned a bachelor's degree within six years, when you factor in all of the headwinds the children in our program face, that percentage drops to almost zero.

There has been a shift over the last decade or so in terms of what young adulthood is for this generation. According to a Pew Research Center study, the number of adults ages 18 to 31 living with family continues to increase. Everything from ever-increasing rent prices to the rise of college tuition play a factor in this, but the children we serve also face additional obstacles. The rungs of the ladder are becoming further and further apart each year for them. Where you used to be able to jump up, grab the next rung and--through pure will and determination--pull yourself up, the rungs are now seemingly impossible to reach. At age 18, the children in our program have no financial resources and little to no social or family support. At a local level, we have a 98 percent on-time high school graduation rate, and 90 percent of those youth go on to enroll in college, but they're often encouraged to drop out by their families at the first sign of struggle.

For all high school graduates nationally, about 50 to 60 percent enroll in college; of those students, about half end up graduating. To put this into perspective, of the minority, low-income high school graduates across the country, on average 20 percent begin college and only 4 percent go beyond their first year.

What if we made a promise that by the middle of their 20s, all youth in our programs would have a living-wage job? It's a goal we can accomplish. We are already making that difference for children who did not think they could make it to high school graduation; we merely need to keep going. On average, our high school graduates have had their mentors for six years, which is why our graduation and college admission rates are so remarkable.

With this promise, every child who graduates high school would continue to receive mentorship from someone who has been there every step of the way so far. Their mentors are individuals who care about them and are invested in their future and can guide them through the challenges of college or trade school. Think about your own college or early adult years: Imagine having absolutely no one to answer questions about the basics of a college campus or conflicts with colleagues at work. On top of that, having a family who may not be supportive of your path and who have significant struggles you may feel responsible for. Our mentors help navigate graduation requirements, job hunting, resume preparation, interviewing and, finally, the beginning of a career and dealing with office politics.

Truthfully, our mentors don't stop because our children have reached 18--they are for life.

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