Mentors: changing lives, increasing opportunity

Jan 27, 2016 by Mark Greenlaw


January is National Mentoring Month, which provides us with the perfect opportunity to hit the pause button and take a few minutes to reflect on the tremendous impact that adult mentors can have on young people. As with many other youth-serving organizations, volunteer mentors are critically important to our ability to achieve our mission and transform the lives of young people across the world.

Last year, FIRST had nearly 200,000 adult volunteers who worked with over 400,000 young people. These mentors and volunteers invested over 16 million hours – the equivalent of over 7,600 full time staff! Our mentors and volunteers are one of our greatest assets, and we appreciate them deeply.

It is clear from the above statistics that FIRST relies on its mentors and volunteers to carry out our programs. But the importance of mentors goes far beyond the execution of our programs.  Mentors are critical to achieving our mission, and in fact, are an essential component of the FIRST Theory of Change. For those unfamiliar with the term “Theory of Change”, it used by non-profits and social impact organizations to outline the program activities that lead to the desired long term outcomes. In other words, our Theory of Change connects FIRST program activities to the outcomes that lead to the goal of the organization. For example, FIRST increases interest in the STEM fields, through a specific feature or activity that we incorporate into our programs, such as providing activities that focus on solving real-world problems.

One specific program component that is part of our Theory of Change is providing opportunities for mentoring.  Mentors  from STEM fields model what professionals do and as a result, may increase interest in the field.1,2 Research has shown that the likelihood to pursue a STEM degree increases when combining hands-on science experiences with mentorship, particularly for girls.3,4,5 Additionally, a relationship with a mentor or coach is a critical part of the learning process. FIRST programs provide mentoring of students which may not only lead to a better understanding of STEM careers, but also increased confidence, self-esteem and satisfaction of the student.

But the benefits that mentors provide go much further. In his book “The Opportunity Equation, How Citizen Teachers are Combating the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools”, Citizen Schools founding CEO Eric Schwarz draws on the work of Harvard’s Robert Putnam to discuss the important role that mentors play in improving the lives of young people, especially those from low-income communities. (Disclosure: I became friends with Eric while serving on Citizen Schools’ National STEM Advisory Council.)

The crux of Schwarz’s argument is that having relationships with someone outside your normal family network, such as a mentor, can greatly increase opportunities later in life. Relationships with mentors create social capital, of which there are two types. 

  1. Bonding social capital involves close connections with people like you, such as family members and close friends. 
  2. Bridging social capital is when you form a relationship with someone different than you, in an entirely different network.

It is bridging social capital that is so critical to long-term opportunity, since a relationship with a successful engineering, technology, or business professional, for example, could open up significant opportunities later in life. And, Schwarz argues, these relationships are especially important for youth from low income communities who may have less ties with people, compared to more affluent youth, who can open doors later in life. He goes on to say “The opportunity divide is not just in access to good teaching of math, science, or writing, but a divide that is much more fundamental: a divide in access to positive experiences and relationships that are foundational to almost everything we do.”

An inspiring example of such a relationship is FIRST Robotics Competition Alum Yohance Salimu and his mentor, Tim Wright. Yohance was a homeless teen; Wright was a professional engineer. The robotics team at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles brought them together – changing the course of Yohance’s life, helping to pull his family off the streets and motivating him to apply to the United States Airforce where he is now a Cadet Second Class. In fact, mentorship at Crenshaw is creating a new reality for many young people. In a community where the graduation rate is 30 percent, Wright and his team of mentors see 90 percent of their students going to college. Mentors like Wright and thousands of others are putting students on a more prosperous path – benefiting not only these kids but also their communities and the workforce at large. 

Mentors, including the many thousands that work with FIRST youth participants, form these critical relationships, leading to greater life-long opportunity.  As we close out National Mentoring Month, let’s thank the mentors who are helping to build a brighter future for all of us.

  1. Dee, T.S. (2007). Teachers and the gender gaps in student achievement. Journal of Human Resources, 42 (3), 528-554.
  2. Packard, BWL, Nguyen, D. (2003). Science career-related possible selves of adolescent girls: A longitudinal study. Journal of Career Development, 29 (4), 251-263
  3. Amelink, C. T. (no date). Overview: Mentoring and women in engineering. Retrieved from:
  4. McLaughlin, R. (2005). Girls in science. Science Scope, 28(7), 14-15
  5. McCrea, B. (2011). Making science appeal to girls. Principal Leadership, 11(8), 28-32.

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

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I read the article but I loved the last part "Alum Yohance Salimu and his mentor, Tim Wright". How a one intelligent man inspires another talented man which made an example for the world to follow. Loved it ! 

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