Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet

Sheryl Burgstahler and Deb Cronheim

Most of us can think of people in our lives, more experienced than ourselves, who have supplied information, offered advice, presented a challenge, initiated friendship, or simply expressed an interest in our development as a person. Without their intervention, we may have remained on the same path, perhaps continuing a horizontal progression through our academic, career, or personal lives.

The term "mentor" has its origin in Homer's Odyssey when a man named Mentor was entrusted with the education of the son of Odysseus. Today, mentoring is associated with a variety of activities including teaching, counseling, sponsoring, role modeling, job shadowing, academic and career guidance, and networking.

DO-IT Mentors are valuable resources to their DO-IT Scholars and Pals in DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). Most Mentors are college students, faculty, practicing engineers, scientists, or other professionals who have disabilities. DO-IT Scholars and Pals are making plans for post-secondary education and employment. Their disabilities include visual, hearing, mobility, and health impairments, as well as specific learning disabilities.

Some Mentors meet DO-IT Scholars and Pals during Summer Study programs and at camps and other DO-IT activities across the United States. However, most mentoring in DO-IT takes place via the Internet. Through electronic communications and projects using the Internet, mentors promote personal, academic, and career success. Mentors provide direction and motivation, instill values, promote professionalism, and help Scholars develop leadership skills. As one Scholar noted, "It feels so nice to know that there are adults with disabilities or who know a lot about disabilities, because I think that people who are about to go to college or start their adult life can learn a lot from mentors..." As reported by another Scholar, she had never met an adult with a hearing impairment like hers before getting involved in DO-IT: "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 who had normal hearing. So he made me feel a lot better about my future." As participants move from high school to college and careers they too become mentors, sharing their experiences with younger participants.

Electronic communication eliminates the challenges imposed by time, distance, and disability that are characteristic of in-person mentoring. For example, participants who have speech impairments or are deaf do not need special assistance to communicate via electronic mail. Those who cannot use the standard keyboard because of mobility impairments, use adaptive technology to operate their computer systems.

DO-IT encourages one-to-one communication between Scholars, Pals, and Mentors via electronic mail. It also facilitates communication in small groups through the use of electronic discussion lists. For example, one group includes both Mentors, Pals, and Scholars who are blind. They discuss common interests and concerns such as independent living, speech and Braille output systems for computers, and options for displaying images and mathematical expressions.

The DO-IT program received national recognition with The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mentoring "for embodying excellence in mentoring underrepresented students and encouraging their significant achievement in science, mathematics, and engineering." It was also showcased in the President's Summit on Volunteerism and received the National Information Infrastructure Award "for those whose achievements demonstrate what is possible when the powerful forces of human creativity and technologies are combined." With the financial gift associated with its Presidential Award for Mentoring, DO-IT created a brochure and videotape ($25) titled Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet. To order this videotape, send a request and check to the DO-IT office.