Jean Rhodes, Frank L. Boyden Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring, recently won the Eleanor Maccoby Book Award for her book Older and Wiser: New Ideas for Youth Mentoring in the 21st Century. This prestigious award is presented by the Division of Developmental Psychology of the American Psychological Association. Mass Media had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Rhodes about her book and her journey to explore the topic of youth mentoring.
Kaushar Barejiya: For our readers, would you mind introducing yourself and talking about your work at UMass Boston?
Jean Rhodes: Well, I’m the Frank L. Boyden Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Guidance. I am a clinical psychologist by training. So, I’m doing a Ph.D. Program and Doctor of Clinical Psychology program through the Department of Psychology. I am currently working on some projects related to youth mentoring and student mentoring. One is to evaluate what we’re doing at Northeastern, you know, all kinds of programs you might call behavioral economics, we tweak things, we see how it works, nudge students and so on. I am working on meta-analysis, group coaching, and interventions provided by mentoring techniques. And then, you know, we’re working on various projects that look at the underlying mechanisms that mentors have on mental health outcomes.
KB: For those who may not know, could you please provide an excerpt from your book “Older and Wiser”?
JR: So, this book is a compilation of my 30 years of research on the topic of youth mentoring, it’s both formal mentoring, like big brother, big sister, you can arrange competitions between young people and volunteers like and non- Formal mentoring, such as the relationships college students form with their professors or advisors, or the relationships high school students form with their coaches. So we’re looking at the full range of these supportive, non-parental care people and how they support people. Many of these studies come from the Center for Evidence-Based Guidance at UMass Boston. So, it’s not just my research. Here are my PhD students, postdocs, undergraduates, etc.
KB: 30 years of empirical research is definitely a long time. What was your process like and what prompted you to embark on this journey?
JR: So, you know, it’s funny, and sometimes you think about this topic. For me, I have a very important mentor. His name was George, he was the founder of the field of community psychology, and he was my mentor during college. His daughter actually became my best friend and remains a very close friend. So, at a very pivotal point in my intellectual development and identity development, I had a mentor. Then I went to graduate school and I was studying people who were resilient despite a lot of trauma and marginalization and hardship. Again, I found that a good relationship can make a huge difference in protecting people from the negative effects of stress. So I dug deeper, there really isn’t much territory in this area. Someone has observed it, but no one has really studied it as its own topic, because that was a long time ago. So I started looking. I started with some very basic questions like, you know, can these programs create something that young people find out for themselves? Like, did you know that a young person finds a coach, religious leader or neighbor who is very important to them? Is this the same thing we create through projects? What kind of people form these important mentoring relationships? And, you know, is it like kids who had good relationships in the past, so they have trust, or people who really need trust because they don’t have good relationships, you know, just a million questions. So, I got some funding, and I went out and looked at formal and informal relationships, which led to more and more problems. As I became a professor, I brought in more students, and then my students started researching, and the field really blossomed.
KB: Do you think college students appreciate the presence of mentors in their lives, or are they still reluctant to seek help with non-academic issues?
JR: I think you know that the more privileged young people who grew up in middle-class families, their parents, you know, really invested in their future and kind of taught them social networking strategies. They’re like, you know, your summer is almost here. You should contact my colleagues at work, or, you know, you should talk to your teacher. And disadvantaged youth who grew up in poverty, grew up in disadvantageous conditions, first of all, there are fewer caring adults around. The teacher-student ratio is different. Athletic coaches have different ratios to students. So, they don’t have as many opportunities and don’t necessarily have the same sense of entitlement. For many of the students we’ve studied over the years, including those at UMass Boston, they sometimes equate asking for help with weakness and feel like they’ve been told, you know, that you should be able to be on your own. And they don’t realize the importance of having a mentor. So we actually have a course now at UMass Boston, like five parts of it, called Connected Futures, where we actually work with students, teach them the value of mentors, and then develop strategies for more privileged youth access themselves or through their family or something like that, this is how you reach out, this is how you send emails, this is how you handle rejections, this is how you describe your interests, this is how you the way you make your request. We found that this affects students’ sense of belonging in college because they feel connected to others in their social network. We also found that, you know, a year later, their GPA was higher. So, we do think it’s not something that comes naturally to everyone, but something that can be taught.
Professor Rhodes also founded MentorHub, a non-profit organization. MentorHub connects mentors and trainees through an app, enabling them to interact with each other. A web-based portal is also used to link program employees. This seamless multi-platform connection enables an unparalleled level of communication and transparency between trainees, mentors and their projects.
UMass Boston Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco congratulated Rhodes on his achievements. “Jean Rhodes is a world-renowned scholar working at the forefront of her field. I congratulate her on receiving this very prestigious award,” commented Suarez-Orozco.