Let your mentor be your guide

"Mona Lisa Smile."

"Dead Poet's Society."

"The Ron Clark Story."

What do these movies have in common? Each features a teacher who inspires a group of students to strive for greatness.

None of the young people in these movies were looking for a mentor.

In fact, in each film, the students were content with their role in life.

The adults, however, challenged them to think harder, do more, and imagine bigger.

Teachers play a big part in a student's life, as do parents, siblings and other family members. Yet one does not need to be a teacher or even a parent to have a positive influence on a child's life. In today's global world, students have opportunities to find inspiration and guidance from anyone everywhere.

And it's important that students take advantage of that.

Mentoring is a partnership between a youth and an adult that provides support, guidance and assistance. The role a mentor plays in a person's life are many - friend, adviser, tutor and conscience.

ACT research indicates that students of all ages rely on school relationships to help them develop educational goals. U.S. Department of Education research found that mentoring has a positive impact on grades, while also boosting the student's perception of his or her academic abilities.

Other studies credit mentoring for a decline in student absences, more classroom participation and even better parent-child relationships.

A 2002 Child Trends report titled "Mentoring Programs and Youth Development: A Synthesis" best summarizes the benefits of mentoring:

• Positive academic outcomes.

• Prevention of youth risk behaviors.

• Enhanced social and mental development.

Yet mentors aren't limited to students. Many businesses also have mentor programs, in which new employees are paired with a senior worker to help ease the newcomer status.

Likewise, new teachers are often paired with an experienced educator to help work through problems the first year in the classroom. I've met several teachers who said they wouldn't have survived the first month without the support and knowledge of their mentor.

So how does one find a mentor? Look around. Your teen may have one already. Mentors may come into a person's life naturally, perhaps as a teacher, coach or family friend. Others occur through structured programs in which mentors and participants are selected and matched through a formal process, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs or Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The mentor relationship works because of the connection between the student and adult. Some youths feel more comfortable confiding to someone other than their parents. While it may not be ideal, be thankful your child is talking to someone.

If your child doesn't have a mentor, encourage him or her to get involved in extracurricular activities. Some of the strongest mentoring relationships develop when students pursue outside interests. Find out if your student's school has a mentoring program. If not, perhaps the time has come to start one.

The sixth annual National Mentor Month is celebrated this month.

Spearheaded by the Harvard Mentoring Project of the Harvard School of Public Health, MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership, and the Corporation for National and Community Service, the monthlong event recognizes the important role mentors play in people's lives. They listen, they care, and they have the ability to help someone become the person they're capable of being.

• Rose Rennekamp is the vice president of communications for ACT. She is a mom and has a master's of education in guidance and counseling. For more college and career-planning information, visit www.actstudent.org. Have a question you want answered in a future column? Send a letter to this newspaper or e-mail Rose at AskRose@act.org.

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