Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet

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[Narrator] This should be a great time in your life. Those wonderful student years, when you're old enough to make choices and too young to take total responsibility. You're really getting out on your own, but sometimes, you need a little help on the road to independence.
[CJ] I didn't feel like I was going to succeed as well, or... and my expectations for myself weren't anywhere near as high.
[James] Going through high school, there was always that question of whether or not I was going to be able to go on to college and succeed. And now that I'm in education, the question still is, "What is it going to be like? What are the challenges I'm going to face?"
[Sheryl Burgstahler, DO-IT] Kids with disabilities often have expectations that are just much lower than they need to be. And at DO-IT, we try to change that.
[Students] I want the DO-IT logo front and center. Yeah. Up top...
[Narrator] DO-IT stands for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology. It's a University of Washington program designed to help students with disabilities become successful in both college and careers. Technology is key.
[Crashing noise, laughter] [Students] What was that?
[Travis, student] The first year I come here I had never had experience working on the Internet, especially E-mail, and so that's why...it really got me going with E-mail, and now if somebody were to take my E-mail away from me I would kill them, probably.
[Narrator] Okay, that's a little extreme. But technology does open a wide range of career opportunities and personal connections.
[Greg Smith, Microsoft] Well, and you know in these days, I mean like a place like Microsoft, you know the people that work here...I'm on a completely equal footing with any of those people, because the things that you're doing here are purely creations of your mind.
[Narrator] Greg Smith is a software design engineer at Microsoft. He's also a mentor for DO-IT scholars, one of many successful business people who volunteer support, advice, and friendship to students with disabilities.
[Greg] It's making sure that someone isn't isolated in their thoughts....you know, because that's something that a high school kid has to deal with anyway, that they feel alone or isolated, or that something difficult that they're going through is unique to them, and there's not...there isn't any help out there.
[Professor] Hi Sandra. Morning.
[Narrator] Many of DO-IT's mentors know exactly what kids are going through...because they've been there.
[Roger Harris, UW] I've been through this thing. I had the stroke and so on. And I find it incredibly gratifying to be able to share that with somebody, and to be able to help somebody else who's going through some of the same things.
[Narrator] Roger Harris is a professor in the University of Washington's medical school. His approach to mentoring is to seek out a few students with similar disabilities to his, or with interests in medicine. He takes a personal interest in each protege.
[Roger] She's in college now, and she was very interested in doing something like nursing or P.A. or something like that; and we went round and round for quite a while trying to help her decide what thing she wanted to do, and I kept getting information on these different programs and sending it to her, and that was just great. I loved doing that. And I'm still waiting to find out where she actually ends up.
[Imke Durre, UW] So today we're going to use solar ovens to cook hotdogs.
[Narrator] As a graduate student, teaching assistant, and mentor, Imke Durre has firsthand knowledge of the college experience. Her discussion groups during DO-IT's summer program cover a wide range of students' concerns.
[Student] I use what's called a Perkins Brailler...
[Imke] I've initiated discussions about living on your own, going grocery shopping, planning for college, adaptive technology, and just a range of issues.
[Narrator] Mentors can calm fears about independent living. When Kevin Berg started at Seattle Pacific University, his mother was sure he'd never be able to live on campus, that he'd be home in two weeks. But with a friendly roommate and a few accommodations, it worked out just fine.
[Kevin's dad] Anything that he needed, they were more than willing to accommodate.
[Narrator] Kevin had four successful years on campus, and today, he has his own Web site design business. And although he often lets his father translate for him in face-to-face discussion groups, on the Internet he needs no interpreter.
[Kevin Berg, The Master's Net] It really helps the kids and me understand each other a lot better.
[Narrator] E-mail is a major part of DO-IT's mentoring program. Distance and disability don't matter on the Internet.
[Kevin] We call it "the great equalizer."
[Narrator] DO-IT encourages mentors and proteges to communicate one-on-one on line. Electronic lists of those with similar disabilities or interests facilitate group discussions and projects. All this is done electronically, without concern for limits of time, location, or disability.
[Imke] I can communicate with people who have speech impairment, so in some ways, the Internet is even better than person-to-person mentoring.
[Narrator] Sometimes students live in isolated areas, or across the country from a mentor.
[Ed Pottharst, Seattle City Light] E-mail is a great tool, and I think it's a great way for the mentors and the students to keep in touch during the school year, when we might be thousands of miles apart.
[Narrator] And even just across town, E-mail eliminates accessibility problems. Ed has been a mentor to Bridget McCarthy, who also has a profound hearing loss.
[Bridget] Since I can't use the telephone, E-mail is a valuable part of my life, and Ed and I would E-mail every once in a while to find out how the other person was doing, and he always seemed very concerned about how I was doing, and that made me feel like I had someone who cared about me, who really wanted to see me do well.
[Narrator] Bridget is doing very well. A former DO-IT scholar, she's in college now and considering a career in audiology. Volunteering at a pediatric clinic gives her some practical knowledge....and some encouragement.
[Ed] I try to tell the DO-IT kids to listen to their hearts and think about what they really want to do. Don't listen to people who say "No, you can't do this or that" or "you should be thinking only about this kind of work." Just think about what you really want to do, what really turns you on, and go for it.
[Narrator] Before she met Ed, Bridget had never known an adult with a hearing impairment. She had no role models, and she sometimes wondered what her life would be like.
[Bridget] But when I met him, I was so surprised how he had such a normal life, and he had a family, and he worked with people that had normal hearing, so that made me feel a lot better about my future.
[Bike instructor] There's a parking break, right here.
[Ed] I have to see your face.
[Bike instructor] Okay, there's a parking break...
[Narrator] And by example, Ed helped Bridget learn how to interact with others.
[Bridget] He taught me that even though I have a hearing impairment, I should always stick up for myself; and I should...if I don't understand something, to ask people to clarify it for me; because I've always had a problem doing that, because I don't want to be embarrassed in front of other people.
[Narrator] And now, Bridget will mentor other DO-IT scholars. Once students move on to college, they share their experiences with younger participants.
[Architect] Well, clearly we want to be able to provide them with a couple of different options, and I'm seeing a couple of options that are already in there that I think could work...
[Narrator] After college, there's another challenge on the road to success. Getting that first job is crucial.
[Karen Braitmeyer, Studio Pacifica] I think a mentor in the field that the student is interested in can be invaluable in terms of having sort of an ear to the ground about what the job opportunities are like.
[Narrator] Karen Braitmayer is a Seattle architect. With today's technology, she hopes to see more people with disabilities enter the field.
[Karen] There aren't very many people with disabilities in my profession; I think there's room for more; It used to be that you had to be able to work on huge drawings and do very fine motor skill kinds of things. Well now, all the ideas that are up here can come out through the computer much more easily.
[DO-IT staff person] Okay, this is what we've been waiting for this evening... so please help me welcome The Trenchcoats!
[Applause]
[Trenchcoats] Here we go... one, two, three...
[Narrator] Mentoring has its social moments as well.
[Trenchcoats] I can see clearly now the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.
[Narrator] Despite the benefits of fiber optics, person-to-person contact is still an important part of bonding.
[Trenchcoats] And all of my bad feelings have disappeared. Now that they're gone, here comes that rainbow I've been praying for...
[Greg] There's nothing like really getting everybody in the same place, and talking to someone, so that you can put a face with the e-mail name next time you see them on line.
[Trenchcoats] It's gonna be a bright, bright, bright, sunshiny day.
[Narrator] For students, it's inspiring to meet someone who's working in their field of interest.
[Greg] What it boils down to is that, in a lot of cases, getting the career you want, the prerequisite to that is thinking that you might be able to do it. And so just having someone that might be in a position that you think you want to be in allows you to consider that possibility.
[Narrator] And what's in it for the mentors? New energy and ideas, for one thing.
[Karen] The excitement, enthusiasm, and sort of fresh ideas that a student can bring to the table ...I think those things can be very refreshing to people who've been in the workplace sort of doing the same sort of things over and over for a while. Working with students in that way is very invigorating. I find it very exciting.
[Narrator] Mentors themselves can network and grow.
[Ed] I've grown up pretty much entirely within the hearing world, and I know a lot about hearing loss; but in the DO-IT program there are people with so many other different kinds of disabilities, many more than I knew ever existed. And so for me, the mentoring opportunity is also a learning opportunity for me, as well.
[Narrator] And it's a chance to pass on some hard-earned experience.
[Roger] I think that that's why I'm a mentor, because it gives me an opportunity to put my experience to good use. And to help out other people and get them through things that were hard for me once, and that now I know how to do.
[Narrator] DO-IT received national recognition with The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mentoring. At the White House, director Sheryl Burgstahler accepted the award for "embodying excellence in mentoring underrepresented students and encouraging their significant achievement in science, mathematics, and engineering." DO-IT also received the National Information Infrastructure Award for exceptional use of the Internet to support young people.
[Sheryl] In DO-IT, students from cities and rural communities; from rich and poor families; from a variety of ethnic backgrounds; and with disabilities that affect their vision, hearing, mobility, health, and learning, come together in an electronic community and experience life on a level playing field. Today, the DO-IT project, which is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, is honored to receive an award for its creative use of the national information infrastructure. We look forward to the day when stories like ours are no longer exceptional, but commonplace. Thank you.
[Applause]