Posted December 3, 2008
Being an Online Mentor: A Real Relationship, A Real Commitment
(What I've Learned as an Online Mentor)
One of the most sought-after online volunteering activities by potential online volunteers is mentoring another person via the Internet. But while people may desire to make a difference in someone's life by working together online, they also often have a misconception that mentoring online takes far less time and commitment than traditional, onsite volunteering. This is yet another myth of online volunteering.
Mentoring someone online takes real time and commitment. The work required for online mentoring doesn't happen only at the most convenient time for the volunteer; the mentor has to schedule real time for mentoring to happen regularly, and for questions and comments by the person being mentored to be addressed promptly. A mentoring relationship can actually cause harm to the person to be mentored if the volunteer does not make the relationship a priority, and makes the person to be mentored feel forgotten or not of great importance.
I have been an online mentor several times:
How did I become involved in these online mentoring experiences? I sat up the Sanchez Elementary School Online Mentoring Program myself, and wanted to experience the program as a mentor as well. I read about the three women bloggers projects on one of the various online communities with which I'm involved, and contacted each to become involved. I responded to a request for volunteers from Open University in their student or alumni magazine (I forget which). I set up the latest experience mentoring the graduate student in Afghanistan myself, before I left the country after working there for six months in 2007.
- one-on-one exchanges with a fourth grade girl in Austin Texas, part of the Sanchez Elementary School Online Mentoring Program, to help build students writing abilities and to reinforce good practices in online safety (2000)
- one-to-many exchanges for the Young Caucasus Women Project, recruited from adult students from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the US State Department's Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program, to help them as part of their training as citizen journalists (2006)
- one-on-one exchanges with students interested in careers in international development work, through Open University, where I completed my Master's Degree (2004 - 2007)
- one-to-many exchanges for new women bloggers in Kenya, through Fahamu and the Women's Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC), to help them learn to use blogs as a method of democratic expression and empowerment (2008)
- one-to-many exchanges for the inaugural Blogs for African Women (BAWo) Mentoring Project, focused on women living in Nigeria, to help them learn to use blogs as a method of democratic expression and empowerment (2008)
- one-on-one exchanges with a graduate student and former co-worker in Kabul, a young Afghan woman undertaking her final project for her Master's Degree, researching the importance of women leaders to development success (2007-2009)
The most satisfying relationships for me have been the one-on-one exchanges, where I am working with and focused on just one person. In such online relationships, I feel like I'm not only making a real difference, but also building a very real relationship. The one-to-many exchanges are worthwhile, but it's the one-on-one relationships that have been most satisfying for me, personally, and that I feel that I see real results because of the online exchanges.
Not every mentoring relationship has been successful. In one program, those to be mentored seemed unclear about what the purpose of the program was for, and their messages to our private communications platform didn't seem to have any particular focus. In another program, the mentoring relationships ended when the program ended and the private communications platform was discontinued, much to the disappointment and even sadness of the students involved; for them, their mentors "disappeared." And in another program, the start of the exchanges was delayed, and when they finally started, I was far from my computer.
For all of these online mentoring experiences, what has been most important for me to be successful as a volunteer mentor are:
So far, all of my online mentoring experiences have been via written communications and have been asynchronous rather than synchronous; mentors, and those to be mentored, don't have to be online at the same time. This is all done usually via a special password-protected online platform, so that exchanges are private and can be easily monitored. Sometimes, this platform hides the identities of the mentors and those to be mentored; we know each other only through "handles" or user name; the reason for such a system, is for online safety -- messages are monitored so that there is no way for participants to contact each other outside the program's communications platform.
- to know this is going to be a well-run program, affiliated with a credible organization, with a contact person to help me promptly with technical issues and any issues I may have as a part of my mentoring, and with clear, well-stated, realistic program goals that are a part of an overall onsite activity or program.
- to have the program goals always in mind during all exchanges. I often re-read them just before I write, so I can make sure I'm focused on such in all communications with the person or group I'm mentoring.
- to set a time every day, every other day, or twice a week -- as appropriate -- to read messages from the person to be mentored or those to be mentored, and to craft an appropriate response. If I'm helping with a specific project or assignment, such almost always has a deadline, and I have to be able to put in the time needed to offer appropriate guidance, proofread an assignment, etc., long before the deadline, so that the student has time to read what I've said, process it and turn in the assignment. In other words, online mentoring is not for whenever I have some time; it's a real commitment, and it means rearranging things in my onsite life to meet that commitment.
- to find out as much as possible about who the people to be mentored are, where they come from, what their daily life is like, what languages they speak, how comfortable they are in writing, what they expect of the program and the exchanges with the mentors, and what they know, and don't know, about the mentors.
- that people who are not native English speakers, are very young, or are part of a culture where women are not supposed to be talkative or have public opinions, are often quite self-conscious about expressing themselves in writing.
- to appreciate that those to be mentored may come from areas with very different values, very different standards of living and very different beliefs than the mentors.
- to appreciate that those to be mentored are not as tech-savvy as me, and therefore, I need to avoid tech jargon and I need to fully, simply explain how to use certain tech tools, such as how to use Google to find resources for a project.
- to encourage students to do things themselves, rather than having me do such for them; the goal is always to build a student's capacity in some way.
- to maintain a very positive, upbeat approach in written communications, and to write frequently, so that students feel warmly supported by me.
- to keep writing those to be mentored even if they aren't responding to my messages every time.
- to be careful not to write something that sounds overly critical or could be interpreted as even slightly insulting. Criticism is fine, but it must be surrounded by a lot of sincere praise.
- that misunderstandings are bound to happen; I work to avoid them, but when they happen, I work to mend hurt feelings.
Would video work in online mentoring? Certainly, provided that all participants:
If you are interested in creating an online mentoring program for young people or adults, see the Virtual Volunteering Project's information online mentoring -- still the most comprehensive information available, even though this information has not been updated in many years.
- are very comfortable using such tools entirely on their own
- have reliable broadband Internet connections and very modern computers
- are in similar time zones
- feel comfortable speaking, at least initially, with a "stranger"
- feel comfortable speaking with someone who is significantly older, or who may speak better English than they do themselves
- have a space with little or no noise around them and few distractions where they may engage in such live video interactions
- have clear guidance regarding the purpose of each live video interaction
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