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The Joy of Mentoring—From Thousands of Miles Away

12.28.16

Stephen Ball

Courtesy of Stephen Ball


Stephen Ball

Courtesy of Stephen Ball

A little over a year ago, I clicked send on an email that signaled the start of one era and the end of another. I confirmed my acceptance of a position with a large insurance company. I would start in January as government-affairs counsel at the company’s headquarters in a suburb of San Francisco. A new job for the New Year.

Re-reading my sent email, I immediately breathed a sigh of relief. This was it. Change was happening, and there was no turning back. California, here I come. I sat back in my chair and enjoyed a few moments appreciating my office’s view of several of New York’s most famous landmarks. For a native Michigander like me, who had grown up dreaming of someday living and working in New York City, the view was absolutely captivating—a permanent, inspiring, visual reminder of the arc of my early ambition. I’d spent so many days and nights enjoying the view. And now, I was leaving.

Riding home on the train that evening, I thought of the seismic change that the next few months would bring. Packing for a cross-country move, finding a new apartment, and resigning from my job as a litigation attorney at a law firm would be difficult. 

But, I reassured myself, in the grand scheme of things, these were minor hurdles standing in the way of greater happiness. I was leaving New York to move to one of the country’s most desirable areas. I would soon be free from the tyranny of the billable hour! And, in my new role, I would be working in government affairs, my true passion. There was just one problem in my calculus, though. One major hurdle I momentarily forgot to consider—Michael, my mentee.

Earlier in the year, I had signed up to be a volunteer mentor for Mount Vernon Star Scholars (“MVSS”), a nonprofit organization that helps gifted students in Mount Vernon, New York, high schools gain admittance to highly selective colleges. It pairs a select group of students with adult mentors who must have a college degree as well as demonstrated professional success, ties to the Mount Vernon community, and an understanding of college admissions. Mentors are expected to take mentees to visit colleges and to meet with them regularly to ensure they remain on track in preparing for college. The program also helps pay for ACT or SAT classes, travel expenses associated with college visits, and college-application fees. For the mentees, the guidance received can prove critical, even life-changing. Many are first-generation college students, so their admission to a competitive university, without the program’s resources and their mentors’ guidance, is far from a given. Mount Vernon, after all, is not exactly a community in which elite, university-level educational achievement is widespread.

An inner suburb of New York City, Mount Vernon has much to recommend it: significant ethnic diversity, beautiful homes, and a commuter-friendly location. But it also remains fraught with socioeconomic challenges. According to recent U.S. Census data, 15.3 percent of Mount Vernon residents live in poverty. In neighboring Bronxville and New Rochelle, the poverty rates are 3 percent and 11.1 percent, respectively. Economic development occurs in fits and starts, but struggles to match that of similarly situated inner-ring suburb communities. The high-school graduation rate for the Mount Vernon city school district also falls well short of the New York State average.

Against this backdrop, I met Michael, my mentee, last summer. A bright, shy, exceedingly polite 16-year-old, Michael was a junior at a high school in Mount Vernon. We first met at a local diner. After Michael and I exchanged brief, semi-awkward pleasantries, I quickly got to the important questions: What’s your favorite sport? Soccer. Do you like video games? Yes, Call of Duty is my favorite. From there, I moved on to more mundane questions, like whether Michael had thought about college much, and if so, what did he want in a college. He hadn’t thought about college much, but knew that he wanted to stay close to home and major in marine biology.

Following that initial meeting at the local diner, Michael and I would return almost weekly, for an hour or so, to chat about Michael’s classes, different colleges, the SAT and ACT, and extracurricular activities.

It took a while for Michael and me to develop a rapport. He was initially wary of befriending a total stranger—even one who purportedly wanted to help him. Our early disconnect made me wonder if Michael saw me as a mentor and friend, or just another annoying adult whose longwinded orations he had to endure. With time, to my relief, I learned that Michael saw me as the former. Or, at least, that’s what I convinced myself, given his striking transformation.

In the beginning, Michael offered little more than one-word responses in our conversations. But as we spent more time together, and Michael started to receive promotional materials from various colleges, things began to change. Michael’s reticence gave way to ebullience when he told me about the arrival of each unsolicited college brochure. From the outset, I explained to him that as a high-achieving student, he should expect interest from top-notch schools. Michael was initially skeptical about this, but as letters from different colleges piled up, he could see that my words weren’t just empty flattery. As a result, he began to trust me and value my guidance. Heartened by his newfound enthusiasm, I responded to the college brochures with equal excitement, and our conversations soon flowed more naturally, irrespective of the topic. He even challenged me to a match in Call of Duty. So despite our early disconnect, all was well. And then, just as our connection strengthened, I decided to move to California for the new job. Thousands of miles away.  

Pangs of guilt stirred within me. I didn’t want to abandon Michael just as we were getting to know each other. MVSS requires a two-year commitment that ends when the mentee graduates from high school. I wanted to fulfill that commitment. I just didn’t know if I still could.

Two months passed. On a chilly weekend afternoon, I ambled into the diner to meet with Michael. Preparing for my move had occupied most of my free time, so I hadn’t seen Michael in a few weeks. Instead, we’d kept in touch via text message. Toward the end of our lunch, I handed Michael an early Christmas gift: a shiny new iPad. Michael, looking surprised, thanked me for the gift. Then I sheepishly divulged that the motivation for the gift was not generosity alone.

I told Michael that I’d accepted a new job that required me to move to California. After apologizing for moving away and not sharing the news of my move sooner, I expressed to Michael that I wanted to remain his mentor and not break the two-year commitment I made to him. So the solution to the long distance, I proposed, would be for us to use his new iPad to conduct our weekly meetings via FaceTime. I asked Michael if he would be OK with this arrangement. Fortunately, he said yes. Although disappointed by the news, he understood my difficult decision. We shook hands and departed the diner. Off to the West I went.

Since that afternoon, I’ve tried to fulfill my mentoring commitment as much as possible. Michael and I communicate regularly, both through texting and weekly FaceTime check-in calls. We’ve even taken trips to Boston and Philadelphia to visit colleges. For the Boston trip, Michael and his dad drove up from Mount Vernon, while I flew in from San Francisco. My company gives employees 24 hours of paid time off for volunteer work each year, so I was able to take a day off to fly to Boston without losing a vacation day. I would have made the trip regardless, but this forward-thinking policy prevents employees from having to decide between taking time for themselves and taking time to serve the community.

The college visits themselves were incredibly rewarding. I could see Michael excitedly envisioning himself as a college freshman in the fall of 2017. He also made pointed observations about what he liked (and didn’t like) about particular schools. This enthusiasm and critical thinking represented a giant leap from our initial meeting, when he told me he had not thought about college. I was also touched by Michael’s tight bond with his father. As an infant, Michael was crying on the morning of September 11, 2001. Instead of ignoring Michael’s cries, his dad delayed his commute to stay and comfort him. Because of the delay, Michael’s dad missed a meeting scheduled for that morning—in his office, on an upper floor of the World Trade Center. Everyone who made it to the meeting was killed. To this day, Michael’s dad graciously credits Michael as the hero who saved his life.

With the upheaval of the previous year behind us, last fall was crunch time for Michael and me—the launch point for his college applications, and my biggest test as his mentor. I welcomed the challenge. Serving as a mentor, even from afar, has been amazingly worthwhile. Michael was already an impressive young man when we met for the first time. But I’ve watched him grow, mature, and develop into an independent thinker—ready for college and ready for the world. Michael has recently been admitted to three colleges, and with nine more decisions on the way, winter and spring should be exciting for him.

I share this story not to tout myself, but rather, to tout MVSS and mentoring programs like it, that help students in underserved communities. Mentoring offers each of us a chance to make a world of difference in the life of a young person. And the wonders of today’s technology make mentoring possible, at least occasionally, for even the busiest among us. Even, in some instances, from thousands of miles away.

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