Carlin Carr

Mentoring program guides Bangalore's most at-risk youth

Carlin Carr, Bangalore Community Manager


India's landmark Right to Education Act shows the country's increasing investment in, and emphasis on, free education for all. The goals are to improve the school system, quality of teaching and student attendance. At the primary school level, significant strides have been made in enrollment, particularly in urban areas. However, many at-risk youth forego secondary school, opting instead to work or attend night school. If they do continue their education, their job prospects rarely stretch beyond avenues they have seen their parents or local community members take: tailors, carpenters, drivers, maids or factory workers.

Mentor Together, a program launched in Bangalore in 2009, has set out to expand these options. By matching mentees with mentors, the organization helps young people understand where their potential is, how they should choose a career and how they could stand out. "Families and communities that do not have 'cultural capital' — years of schooling, access to resources and information networks — find it a challenge to nurture talent in their children," says Namrata Baruah, Progam Manager at Mentor Together Bangalore. "The mentor helps bridge ties here, providing mentees information and opportunities in areas of education and employment that wouldn't be found in the mentee's natural networks."

Mentors are recruited through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs and are matched with mentees, youth from government-run or NGO homes or from disadvantaged areas in Bangalore. Criterion for matching involves many factors, including living within navigable distances given traffic issues in the city and knowing the same language. Many mentees come from villages and may not even know Hindi, the national language. Mentors go through a rigorous selection and training process that "orients them on the styles of mentoring, trust and relationship building techniques and the program rules." Mentor Together has additional resources for mentors to access, depending on the agreed upon goals of the pair. The focal points range from life skills to career and academic planning to community problem-solving.

Young people who enter the program, particularly those from orphanages or shelter homes, have an initial distrust of relationships with adults. These youth already struggle with feelings of abandonment and emotional distress, making them fearful of a program such as this. However, says Baruah, this reticence often quickly dissipates. The reason is due to "strong, emotionally close and authentic relationships" — the foundation of the program's success. Mentor Together found that once these bonds were formed, mentees began to see a marked change in their confidence and have been able to set out future plans with their mentors, balancing dreams with realistic goals.

The mentoring program shows that education is not the silver bullet in changing the lives of disadvantaged youth. Young people need to learn how to translate their education into a better future and to see opportunities beyond their own neighborhoods. They need role models who can encourage and excite them. And they need a map: doable steps that mentees can take toward realizing their goal, but only with little guidance in the right direction.

Photo: Mentor Together