Supporting the College Women Mentors' Strengths and Training Needs with Mindfulness Training

Foukal, Martha, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Foukal, Martha, Education Graduate-fcug, University of Virginia

In recent years, youth mentoring programs have faced a nationwide shortage of adult mentors (Manchir, 2011, O’Connor, 2006). However, college students are increasingly interested in community service opportunities with youth mentoring and are a viable source of mentors to help combat this deficit (Dote, Cramer, Dietz, & Grimm, 2006; Wasburn-Moses, Fry, & Sanders, 2014). College students enroll in youth mentoring because they want to form a relationship with a youth, to be a role model and source of support (Hughes & Dykstra, 2008), and to experience more leadership opportunity (Wasburn-Moses et al., 2014). Interestingly, mentoring programs have utilized this population to provide more mentors to interested youth. In fact, findings from the Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring study indicate that 31% of their total mentors are now college students (Herrera, Kauh, Cooney, Grossman, & McMaken, 2008).

In addition to their motivation to work with youth, multiple characteristics of college students make them well suited to mentor youth, including their similar developmental issues and flexible schedules. Compared to older adult mentors, college students are closer in age with youth mentees and may be seen as “cooler” than older adults. This may be especially true for adolescent mentees. College students also face developmental issues similar to adolescent mentees, including identity exploration and navigating growing independence (Arnett, 2000). These shared experiences can contribute to an enhanced sense of mutual understanding within the mentoring relationship and may help to facilitate a strong bond between mentor and mentee (Rhodes, Spencer, Keller, Liang, & Noam, 2006). Logistically, college students are likely to have more availability in their schedules, compared to older adults who may work full time or have significant familial responsibilities (Davis, 2012). Given that the amount of time invested in a mentoring relationship is positively associated with mentor satisfaction (McGill, Adler-Baeder, Sollie, & Kerpelman, 2014), it is advantageous for programs to recruit mentors with more availability and flexible schedules.

At the same time, mentoring youth can be challenging and college student mentors face programmatic, relational, and individual issues that are unique for their age group (McGill et al., 2014). Compared to older adults, college students are likely to have less experience with youth and may not have a strong understanding of the natural ups and downs that occur while building a relationship with an adolescent (Deutsch, Futch, Varga, & Fox, 2015). In addition, college students’ focus on achievement and evaluation during college may, inadvertently, cause them to strive for perfection as a mentor, which can put undue pressure on both the mentor and mentee. This achievement-oriented mindset (Eccles, Barber, Jozefowicz, Malenchuk, & Vida, 1999) may also make college students more susceptible to feeling like a failure if their mentoring relationship does not advance as they expect it to (Spencer, 2007). Finally, factors related to college students’ academic schedules (i.e., changing class schedules each semester, extended vacations, study abroad, transportation issues) may interfere with consistent meetings with their mentee and stymie the development of a successful mentoring relationship (Jekielek, Moore, Hair, & Scarupa, 2002). Over time, logistical barriers and developmental issues can lead to a premature termination of the mentoring relationship if mentors are not receiving adequate support. In fact, approximately 55% of mentoring relationships end before their initially agreed-upon commitment (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002). This statistic is particularly troubling given that premature termination has been associated with negative outcomes for mentees (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002). Thus, it would behoove mentoring programs to consider the satisfaction of their mentors, since mentor satisfaction suggests the likelihood that a mentor will remain in their mentoring relationship for the full duration (Weiler, Zarich, Haddock, Krafchick, & Zimmerman, 2014).

Tailoring mentor training to meet the incoming strengths and needs of college student mentors may help programs increase mentor satisfaction and reliability. However, there is a dearth of research examining the pre-existing characteristics of college students who sign up to be youth mentors and how these initial characteristics may be associated with mentor satisfaction. The first study, Initial Characteristics and Mentoring Satisfaction of College Women Mentoring Youth: Implications for Training, sought to fill this gap in the literature by addressing the following research questions: (a) who among college students signs up for youth mentoring and (b) how are college mentors’ initial traits associated with their mentoring satisfaction. This study builds on recent qualitative research investigating the experiences of college students enrolled in service-learning youth mentoring programs (Banks, 2010; Weiler et al., 2014) and expands the focus to college mentors’ initial characteristics and their association with mentoring satisfaction. In addition, the study utilizes a comparison group of female college students interested in working with youth (i.e., teaching) but not enrolled in mentoring to assess whether the initial characteristics of college mentors differ from those of their peers who have not signed up to be youth mentors.

For the first study, survey data from college women enrolled in a youth mentoring program (n = 158) and a comparison group (n = 136) were analyzed to determine how initial characteristics of youth mentors differ from comparisons and are associated with mentors’ satisfaction. To answer the first research question, a multivariate analysis of covariance was conducted and assumptions met, with group (mentor vs. comparison) as the independent variable and initial characteristics (GPA, depressive symptoms, autonomy, and cultural sensitivity) as the dependent variables, controlling for year in college and ethnicity. Group means and effect sizes are reported in Table 2 of the first manuscript. Relative to the comparison group, the mentor group reported fewer depressive symptoms and higher initial levels of autonomy, cognitive empathy, and collective self-esteem. To answer the second research question, partial correlation analyses were conducted to determine the relationship between each of the pre-test measures and mentoring satisfaction (see Table 3 of the manuscript). Grade point average, having fewer depressive symptoms, and cognitive empathy were positively correlated with satisfaction and collectively explained 13% of the variance in mentoring satisfaction.

Results from this study suggest that in comparison to college women interested in working with youth (i.e., teaching) but not engaged in youth mentoring, a relative strength for college women who sign up to mentor youth is their willingness to be empathic about and sensitive to the issues and views of their own and others’ racial/ethnic group. Other relative strengths for the college women mentors in this study included higher autonomy and fewer depressive symptoms than the comparison group. These findings have several implications for mentor training for college students. First, training for this population should acknowledge their empathy, since this characteristic is both a strength and positively associated with satisfaction among college student mentors. Given the natural ups and downs of mentoring relationships, including relational challenges from mentees (Rhodes, 2002), however, it also may be important that mentor training for college students include a focus on how to remain empathic toward their mentee during these challenges. In addition, given that recent research findings suggest mentor autonomy is negatively associated with mentee satisfaction (Leyton-Armakan, Lawrence, Deutsch, Williams, & Henneberger, 2012), it is important that mentor training for college students focus on the value of collaborative decision-making between mentee and mentor.

The second study, Mindfulness and Mentoring Satisfaction of College Women Mentoring Youth: Implications for Training, builds on these training implications. It examines whether the addition of mindfulness training is an effective way of tailoring mentor training for college students. Given the unique issues that college student mentors face, additional training aimed at stress management may be particularly beneficial for this population. Stress reduction strategies such as mindful awareness practices (MAPs) may help college student mentors feel better able to handle relational challenges and be more likely to remain in the mentoring relationship. Training in MAPs is associated with enhanced relationship satisfaction among couples (Barnes, Brown, Krusemark, Campbell, & Rogge, 2007; Carson, Carson, Gil, & Baucom, 2006; Jones, Welton, Oliver, & Thorbum, 2011) and in parent-child relationships (Coatsworth et al., 2015). MAPs have also been linked to lower stress among college students (Oman, Shapiro, Thoresen, Plante, & Flinders, 2008). Despite these positive outcomes for relationships and college students, no study to date has examined the potential benefits of mindfulness for college student mentors. The second study sought to address this gap in the literature by examining the following research questions: (a) is the addition of a mindfulness component to college student mentor training associated with mentors’ mentoring satisfaction; (b) does this help them enhance their ability to be empathic in challenging situations; and (c) does this help them shift their inclination for autonomous decision-making and prescriptive mentoring toward a more collaborative, youth-centered approach.

The second study is quasi-experimental and analyzes survey data from mentors from the 2014 academic year (n = 59) who completed three hours of formal training on mindfulness research, application, and practice. Additionally, MAPs designed to foster mindful listening, eating, and emotion regulation skills were incorporated into the 2014-2015 YWLP group mentoring curriculum, which the mentors used to teach mindfulness strategies to their mentees and practice mindfulness as a group over the course of the year (Lawrence, Foukal, Trevett-Smith, & Peifer, 2015). An overview of the MAPs training sessions for mentors and additions to the group mentoring curriculum is included in Table 2 of the second manuscript.

Survey data from this mindfulness group was compared to a group comprised of mentors from the 2011 (n = 85), 2012 (n = 73), and 2013 (n = 65) academic years, who received the same mentor training and group mentoring curriculum, but without the mindfulness component. Complete demographic information for this sample is available by group in Table 3 and by cohort in Table 4 of the manuscript. A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to compare the mean mentor satisfaction between the two groups and separate repeated measures general linear models were conducted to determine whether participation in mindfulness training was associated with a change over time in empathy and autonomy scores. Mentors who participated in mindfulness training reported significantly higher mentor satisfaction, greater increases in empathy, and greater decreases autonomy, compared to mentors received similar training but without the mindfulness component. These findings provide quantitative support for the inclusion of a mindfulness component to college mentor training. Yet further research is needed that more closely examines how college student mentors experience and apply MAPs within the context of their mentoring relationships with youth.

The third study, College Women Mentors’ Experience and Application of Mindful Awareness Practices Training, was conducted with the goal of filling this gap in the literature. The primary aim of this exploratory study was to gain a more detailed, comprehensive understanding of college student mentors’ application and experience of MAPs, in order to better inform the field’s knowledge of how MAPs may be useful for this population. This study addressed the following research questions: (a) how do college women mentors experience and apply MAPs in the context of their mentoring relationship with an adolescent girl and (b) are there differences in outcomes between college women mentors who report high dispositional mindfulness after a semester of training in MAPs compared to those who report low dispositional mindfulness.

Data consisted of 30 reflections written at about one month intervals (T1, T2, T3) over the course of a semester by a subsample of YWLP mentors from the 2014-2015 cohort, the mindfulness group from the second study who received MAPs training. Selection criteria were based on mentors’ post-program score on the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS; Brown & Ryan, 2003); Mentors with the five highest and five lowest post-program MAAS scores were selected for inclusion and assigned to either the high mindfulness group or low mindfulness group (see Table 2 of the third manuscript). Once de-identified, all reflections were uploaded and stored securely using the online qualitative research software platform, Dedoose. Open coding in the early stages of analysis identified initial concepts present in the raw data. Next the researcher composed narrative summaries for all reflections, which facilitated analysis of individual mentors’ change over time and comparison of patterns both within and between groups. The majority of coding and analysis (including composition of narrative summaries) was performed blind and a subset of reflections was coded a second time by two different researchers to check for accuracy of initial codes.

Only half of the mentors included in the present study discussed mindfulness in their reflections (see Table 1 of the manuscript). It may be that some mentors did have experiences with mindfulness but did not write about them; nevertheless this finding suggests that while MAPs are simple strategies, college women mentors may need more support in how to apply them in the mentoring relationship. Thematic analysis identified five ways that college women mentors might respond to MAPs training: 1) noting a specific past experience during which one “should have” practiced mindfulness; 2) planning to practice mindfulness; 3) practicing mindfulness; 4) teaching one’s mentee mindfulness; and 5) one’s mentee practicing mindfulness. The first three of these themes (“should have,” practicing, planning) appear to mirror aspects of the contemplation, preparation, and action stages of change, respectively, of the transtheoretical model (TTM) of change (Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992). A notable implication of this finding is that training for college mentors may need to provide ongoing opportunities for mentor reflection on MAPs application to the mentoring relationship across the stages of change (i.e., contemplation, preparation, and action).

In addition to identifying stages of adoption, results from this study also provided light on how mentors may use MAPs during mentoring. Mentors described applying MAPs as a way to calm themselves and to teach their mentee support in calming herself. Mentors discussed using their breath to help manage self-judgment and to set their intentions before a difficult conversation with their mentee. Some mentors in the low mindfulness group expressed self-judgment, saying they felt guilty or like an inconvenience in situations related to one-on-one time, transportation, and interactions with their mentee’s parents. Some low mindfulness mentors also avoided difficult conversation at T3, which differed greatly from the high mindfulness mentors’ descriptions of initiating difficult conversations at T3 (see Table 5 of the manuscript). Results suggest that some mentors may not experience the same level of dispositional mindfulness as their peers and, consequently, may respond better to instruction other than MAPs training. Teaching developmental issues may be one way to help mentors with lower dispositional mindfulness be less judgmental of themselves and others and to engage in difficult conversations. Given that both of these skills are important parts of mentoring (Rhodes, 2002; Spencer, 2007), programs can benefit greatly from supporting mentor development in these areas.

This three-paper manuscript-style dissertation bridges several areas of the literature, including youth mentoring, college student development, and mindfulness. Thus, results will be valuable to researchers across a variety of disciplines. In addition, the implications of each study will help strengthen the quality of training provided by mentoring programs working with college student mentors. Ultimately, this may translate to more effective mentoring and better outcomes for mentor and mentee. Taken as a whole, this dissertation enhances the mentoring field’s knowledge of college women mentors’ strengths, training needs, and experiences and explores how the incorporation of a new mentor training strategy–mindfulness–may allow programs to better support this unique population of mentors.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
College students, youth mentoring, mindfulness training
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