Student guidance reaches digital age
Wednesday, May 11, 1999
By Liz Garone
REDWOOD CITY -- Engineer John L. Sullivan mentored Sequoia High School senior Martin Sesara, who helped wire two elementary school classrooms for the Internet.
But mentoring sessions between Sullivan and Sesara didn't include meeting face-to-face, like in traditional mentor programs. The two traded questions and answers by e-mail.
For Sullivan, like other busy professionals who want to help students but lack the time for personal meetings, "telementoring" carries attractive benefits: no commute and a commitment of only two e-mails per week.
"I have little enough time at home with my own kids," said the 34-year-old Sullivan, who had a mentor while going to Stanford University. "I'm already oversubscribed, and I thought e-mail wouldn't be as big of a disruption."
The HP Telementoring Program, started in Colorado in 1995 with a handful of students, has grown to 1,000 students for the 1998-1999 school year and is in five countries. David Neils, director of the International Telementoring Center, projects 10,000 students involved by the year 2003.
In San Mateo County, five Redwood City fifth-graders sought to understand magnetism and three high school students, including Sesara, wired classrooms for Internet use this year -- both with the e-mail guidance of Hewlett-Packard employees in Santa Rosa.
Telementoring focuses on math and science. Students who choose to sign up are assigned mentors whose professions match their interests. They work on projects lasting from eight weeks to the whole school year.
The "getting to know you" phase of an e-mail relationship is a little tricky, admitted Sullivan. He tried what he thought would be the next best thing to an in-person meeting; he e-mailed Sesara a photograph of himself.
"I sent it to make it easier for him. That way he could have a mental image in mind when he received my e-mails."
Sesara said he would participate in a similar program again -- but would still prefer an in-person mentor.
"He (Sullivan) knew only what I told him, how I described it. It would have been better if he could have seen the project," Sesara said.
But a regular in-person commitment is what leaves many traditional mentor programs wanting for volunteers while the ITC has an abundance of telementors, according to Neils.
Friends for Youth, based in Redwood City, is always in need of good mentors, according to Executive Director Becky Cooper.
Still, Cooper is not opposed to telementoring -- even if it might cut into her recruits. Any mentoring, as long as it is consistent and monitored, is a good thing, she said.
Neils calculates the time commitment needed to telementor at averaging only six minutes a day.
"Every employee, unless they're headed for heart attack alley, has six minutes a day," said Neils. "If you can't find six minutes to invest in the future generation, then you'd better evaluate where you're at."
But not everyone is convinced that telementoring is the best answer.
"I wouldn't go so far as to call it mentoring," said Alfie Pacheco, program coordinator for the Peer Mentor Program in Redwood City. "It sounds more like a Pen Pal. The whole point of mentoring is human contact. Computers can't give someone that."
But Pacheco conceded that any contact is better than none, especially with those children who are simply looking for answers to specific questions.
Margaret Nelson-Quin, a calibration technician with Hewlett-Packard in Santa Rosa, felt she could provide those answers -- and a strong woman in science role model -- to fifth-grader Veronica Patino.
Since October, Nelson-Quin has been e-mailing back-and-forth with Veronica, who attends Hawes Elementary School in Redwood City.
"I'm not going to have children," said the 41-year-old Nelson-Quin. "But I still believe that everybody needs to play a part in education. I don't believe it's only the parents' and the teachers' responsibility."
Like Sullivan, it was e-mail or nothing for Nelson-Quin. When asked if she would consider being an in-person mentor, she responded immediately, "No way."
"I'm just always on the move, and I have other things going on in my life," she said.
Nelson-Quin also liked the idea of contributing to a student's understanding of technology.
"If students don't know e-mail out of grade school, they are going to be severely handicapped," she said.
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