Wired mentors use Internet to help students at a distance

Copyright  1997
Copyright  1997 The Christian Science Monitor

NEW YORK (May 22, 1997 3:25 p.m. EDT) -- A revolution is afoot in
the way some Americans volunteer - and Russell Smith is in the
vanguard. After a full day working as an educational consultant, the
west Texas resident flops into his favorite recliner and logs onto
the Internet. Soon Smith is busy commenting on the latest English
assignments posted on the Web sites of the 25 New York City high
schoolers he advises.

Call it armchair mentoring. A growing number of Americans are
exploiting the 24-hour flexibility of e-mail to fit mentorships into
busy lives. A software engineer in Colorado persuades a North
Carolina teen to pursue math. A famous photographer in California
shares his vision with an aspiring shutterbug in Alaska.

Sometimes, the students are just a town away. But mentors also cast
a wide net, touching the lives of young people from inner cities to
remote rural areas. All that's needed is "an e-mail address and a
big heart for kids," says one convert.

Consider these examples:

At the Murry Bergtraum High School in New York, English teacher Ted
Nellen has his students put their papers on the Internet. Many
long-lasting mentor relationships have sprung up as people like
Smith comment on the assignments

1,500 Hewlett Packard employees volunteer as e-mail mentors. The
firm, which has set up a Web site to connect employees with teachers,
gives them an hour a week to contribute. Many donate personal time
too (www.mentor.

The Science, Engineering, and Math mentor program at the University
of Delaware, matches disabled students with professionals who
encourage the kids to pursue science careers (

The arrangements often evolve informally. Teachers and volunteers
typically find each other on mentor-oriented Web sites. Many
applicants are screened, although it varies from site to site. At
the Electronic Emissary site (, for example,
interested students and adults fill out forms and are matched by
site administrators at the University of Texas at Austin.

Linking children with unseen adults can raise concerns about
inappropriate contacts. But Nellen, who has never had any trouble,
asserts that e-mail mentorships are safer than face-to-face
encounters. "Kids can simply hit the delete key" and erase the
e-mail, he says. He monitors communications, and counsels the kids
not to give out personal information. He steps in quickly if needed.

Nellen calls Internet mentoring "a powerful tool in education"
because each of the 34 kids in his class can get personal attention.
And, he says, the kids often pay more attention to their mentors than
to him. These "outsiders" provide a real-world "authenticity."
Besides, he quips, "Who listens to English teachers?"

Extra effort for mentors

In fact, it's quite typical for students to work harder with
mentors, including those on the Internet. "The kids have a sense that
it isn't just a school task," explains Janet Schofield, a professor
of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh who is studying
Internet mentor programs. "It's not just something the teacher is
making them do."

Few question that technology holds promise in bringing students and
mentors together. But as with any exclusively e-mail encounter, the
first steps can be awkward.

Take Tati Diaz, a bright, ebullient 12th-grader in the New York high
school. Her mentor, Donald DeMan, is a real-estate appraiser in
Melbourne, Fla. DeMan, whom Nellen recruited on the Internet, was
eager to help, because he says he's "appalled at the state of
education in this country."

In his first e-mail to Diaz, he took a tough line: "I can tell by
your home pages that you have a good base to build upon, yet you lack
the self-discipline and perhaps the confidence needed to do quality
work. You may think it doesn't matter but I assure you it does."

"I was so shocked," Diaz says with an indignant smile. "I was like,
how dare this man!" But soon the two found common ground. They both
have a passion for the "Dune" science-fiction books. He was a
finance major in college. She's an accounting major.

DeMan encouraged her to write drafts of her papers. "I told him I
didn't like rough drafts," she recounts. "But he told me I had to
organize my thoughts. He said I have to be consistent." Soon she
began rewriting already complete papers.

Then in one e-mail he wrote: "I liked your composition. Well done!"

"That meant a lot to me," she beams. "I worked hard for that."

When Diaz's English class ended last spring, she and DeMan lost
touch. Neither ever knew much about the other. "I came on strong, and
... she improved, that's the important thing," DeMan says.

Targeting key interests

One key to successful mentoring is leveraging a student's interests.
Sitting in her office cubicle in Boulder, Colo., Mary Jones got
connected to a troubled high-schooler in rural North Carolina.

This Hewlett Packard software engineer and mother of three had a
tough task. The student, whose name Jones prefers not to use, was
described by her teacher as shy, not gifted, and afraid of computers.
With gentle encouragement and a touch of humor, Jones waded in.

She asked what the girl wanted to do after high school. "Open my own
jewelry store," came the reply. It was the perfect opening.

"If you're going into business, you're going to have to know how
much to charge, and how much profit you're making," Jones wrote.
"Math helps you figure this out."

She also encouraged her to write more clearly, "so when you want to
buy gold chains from a business in India, you can write a formal
request." Before working with Jones, the girl rarely smiled or
talked in class. Now she was the resident expert in computer class -
because she could ask her mentor tough questions. Her grades soared -
from D's in English and math to A's and B's.

Mentors can also give career advice. Alex Kopperud, a senior at
Colony High School in the remote town of Palmer, Alaska, had mulled
over a career as a lawyer. "But if I could do what I really wanted,
I'd be an outdoor photographer," he wrote his mentor.

"Hey, you don't have to compromise," came the reply from David
Neils, a Hewlett Packard employee in Fort Collins, Colo. With Neils's
help, Kopperud is putting his pictures from a trip to Mt. Marcus
Baker on the Internet.

Neils also got Kopperud to write to two prominent photographers,
Gaylen Rowell and George Weurthner, who agreed to offer advice.

"I was amazed they would sit down with a grubby little Alaskan like
me," Kopperud says.

For Neils, that was a great reward: "A student's life is different
on the other side of the planet because I took 12 minutes a day."

-- ABRAHAM T. MCLAUGHLIN, The Christian Science Monitor


Also in this issue:

- Database World- E-Commerce: Data An Ultimate Desire
- Wired mentors use Internet to help students at a distance
- The Web and the workplace
- Report sees holes in Internet security plan
- More banks join move to e-cash


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