On the surface, our volunteer Raj Sheth and his mentee, Juan, don’t seem as if they would have much in common.
Raj is a data analyst at Reddit. Juan is a senior at Mission High School. Raj is from New Jersey. Juan’s from Mexico.
But after being matched as mentor and mentee, the two found they share a love of history (they read the World War II novel “Unbroken” together and then saw the movie adaptation), food (Raj constantly asks about Mexican recipes, Juan says) and soccer (Juan plays, Raj watches his games).
The pair met each other through Mentoring for Success, a school-based program we co-run with the San Francisco Unified School District. Like Raj and Juan, mentors and mentees in the program come from all different experiences and life paths.
“What’s really exciting is seeing people from very different backgrounds who are getting along, and they are very close,” said Chandra Sivakumaran, the Wellness Coordinator at Mission High School who oversees the program there. “It’s mutual respect and knowing that the other person doesn’t necessarily identify with their life, their issues and their culture but really wants to get to know their life story and is really interested in their history and their world.”
Mentors make a big impact on our students. Eighty-six percent of the students in the program have said their mentor helps them do better in school. According to Mentoring.org, at-risk young adults with a mentor are 55% more likely to enroll in college, 78% more likely to volunteer regularly and 130% more likely to hold leadership positions.
“I’ve seen attendance, go up, I’ve seen grades go up, but most of all it’s a boost in confidence,” Chandra said. “You see it in the way they look — their smiles. It’s this confidence, like ‘Oh, I’ve got somebody looking out for me.’”
Raj became a volunteer just over two years ago. He said he wanted to get more involved in the community and was especially interested in education. After being paired with Juan, the two got to know each other over lunches or while watching a Giants game.
“It’s pretty cool,” Juan said of the experience. “I see him as a friend.”
Raj came along just as Juan began to consider his plans for after graduation. “He’s started to think about his future in a serious way,” Raj said.
For a while, Juan’s future wasn’t all that certain. Since leaving Mexico, Juan has been in foster care. But he said seeing a social worker has inspired him to become a social worker himself. He is also thinking about becoming an immigration lawyer.
“I want to help students with the same experience as me,” he said.
Since he entered senior year, Juan has submitted applications to nearly 15 schools, including UC Berkeley and UC Davis, he said. Raj wrote him a recommendation, looked over his personal statement and helped him study for the SATs.
While Juan has made big plans for his future and talks confidently about his dreams, Raj said it’s easy to forget how difficult it can be for teenagers to just go through high school, let alone make huge life decisions.
“I think that when you’re young, there’s a lot of uncertainty in life, and you feel this pressure to know things about what you want and who you are without really knowing the answers,” Raj said. Having someone older around who has a bit of life experience can help a teen alleviate that kind of uncertainty, he said.
For Mary Devereaux, a retired elementary school teacher, joining the program was about getting to spend time with children again. She became a mentor three years ago to a student who is now in sixth grade. Like many pre-teens, the transition to middle school has been tough for her mentee.
“The social stuff is more complicated, and kids need somebody that’s listening to them,” Mary said.
Mary’s mentee loves spending time in nature and doing art projects, so they often go for walks or head to SCRAP, a center for recycled art.
But just as Mary has helped her student deal with life’s challenges, she finds she is constantly learning from her.
“I haven’t had a lot of experience with adolescents, so I learn all the time,” Mary says. “She makes me question myself, am I judging her? She challenges me to think more deeply, and so it’s great.”
Momodou Ndow, a record coordinator at law firm Hanson Bridgett, is one of our longest-serving mentors. He’s been coming back to the project every year for six years. Since we partnered Hanson Bridgett with Everett Middle School in 2002, the company has supported its team as they volunteer and complete projects with the school.
Momodou, who emigrated here from the Gambia as a teenager, is in a unique position to talk with students about their hopes, dreams and fears.
“I talk to them about my immigrant background and not having parents around and having to support myself,” he said.
Momodou said he tries to impart to his mentees a simple but empowering message: If I can make it, so can you.
“I’m able to directly give back and make a difference in someone’s life, no matter how little,” Momodou said. “It is extraordinarily gratifying,”
Mentoring also tends to come full circle. According to The National Mentoring Project, kids who have a mentor are also more likely to one day become mentors themselves.
For Juan, that process has already started. Juan said that as a sophomore, he mentored elementary school students, which included helping them with homework and working to improve their reading skills through a program from the Japanese Community Youth Council (JCYC). He currently looks after pre-K students at a JCYC-run daycare.
Just as Juan has made strides in planning for his future, Raj said spending time with his mentee has broadened his own perspective on the world.
“I get really wrapped up in my own life and my own bubble, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that the world is much bigger than what you experience on a day-to-day basis, and people come from different backgrounds than you do,” Raj said.
But what keeps him coming back most of all is the bond the two have.
“I have a really meaningful relationship with him,” Raj said. “And he’s somebody that
I care about. He’s a really amazing person.”
Do you want to become a mentor? Contact Tom Laursen, our Senior Coordinator of Volunteer Engagement by email or by calling 415-695-5400 ext. 3024.