Mentorship at Its Best

Fall 1999 Masthead

Nancy Lashaway-Bokina
Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District
Edinburg, TX

Imagine being a second year teacher and facing 20 high school juniors. After graduating from the University of Texas-Austin the year before, you find yourself being only a scant 6 years older than the students you have been entrusted to lead. What you face are the survivors of a class that started kindergarten with twice as many members, but somehow over the years, nearly half of your students’ classmates have dropped out of school. What remains before you are students who still embrace the American dream that education will change their lives and who are willing to invest at least one more year to give it that chance. These same students have parents who are laborers and farmhands and are primarily Mexican-American. Nearly every student comes from a family that lives below the federal poverty level, and where most adults don’t have a high school diploma (Arrillaga, 1997).

Since you are teaching an advanced English class, you realize your students’ potential is only limited by their determination to learn. What can you say or do that will promote a vision unlike any these students have ever envisioned?

According to Wall Street Journal writer Patrick Barta (1997), for the past 10 years, “while the Anglo elite in McAllen, Texas was sending its sons and daughters to the University of Texas-Austin, Southern Methodist University, or the Ivy League, the offspring of local Hispanic families were swelling the ranks of the University of Texas-Pan America in nearby Edinburg.” Barta’s article continued with a comparison between what are now The University of Texas-Pan America and City College of New York. He described both universities as gateways to the middle class. Until a month ago, I would have agreed with Barta’s analysis of how recent generations of this region’s long-disadvantaged Hispanic majority have remained in the Lower Valley to continue their education. But, that was before I learned about Francisco Guajardo, a second-year teacher at Edcouch-Elsa High in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

One Teacher With a Vision

Francisco Guajardo, a high school Advanced English teacher listened, learned, and acted upon information shared by his high-ability Hispanic students. Without fully realizing the impact of his decisions, Guajardo guided his students through the higher education maze and led them to heights beyond their wildest expectations. Without expecting personal gain, Guajardo offered his students: encouragement; a way to make the unfamiliar familiar; an opportunity to travel; and a chance to visit Ivy League campuses and personnel. Because of his mentorship, a new generation of highly educated Hispanic students has begun in south Texas. The impact of his willingness to get involved with the social, emotional, and professional needs of his students deserves recognition and reflection.

Under the mentorship of Guajardo, 17 students from the second-poorest school district in Texas, with only 1,400 students, have attended or are currently attending Ivy League schools (Arrillaga, 1997). It all began with a simple question that Guajardo asked on that first day of school. “What are your college aspirations?” Guajardo’s class responded with situational, logical, cost, and family related constrained responses. The majority of his students intended to continue their education at the University of Texas-Pan American (UT-PA). After listening to the students describe their dreams, Guajardo supplied a new one. “Why not attend one of the prestigious Ivy League schools?” With this simple question, an unsolicited mentorship began that encouraged risk-taking and challenge. Before Guajardo could expect his students to embrace the dream he held, he had to establish their trust and reduce their apprehensiveness. To do this, he suggested a trip east over the summer to visit some Ivy League universities.

During the next eight months, Guajardo’s students raised money to fund their exploratory trip to the Northeast. The image of an excited, scared group of 17 and 18-year-olds leaving the Lower Valley for the first time on a four-day cross-country trip is easy to project. The group’s intentions were to visit Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Yale, and Harvard. The first year, all nine of the students who accompanied Guajardo in a rented 15-passenger van applied to an Ivy League school. “Six were accepted” (Arrillaga, 1997). That first trip opened the door for many others. Currently, six students attend Brown, four students attend Columbia, five students attend Yale, and one student is at Harvard. Because of Guajardo’s successful mentorship, other school districts in the Lower Valley are currently examining ways to provide similar opportunities for students.

The Implementation of Mentoring

Throughout history, as autobiographies and biographies have appeared, mention is often made of someone who influenced the eminent person’s life. Although the famous individual becomes a legend, the mentor seldom receives credit for the impact he or she made on another’s life.

As a teacher educator, I am particularly interested in the pedagogical experiences that shape and guide talent and in methods mentors use to encourage and promote outstanding mentee accomplishments. Doubtless, an important, indispensable element of achievement is related to ability and determination, but significant events and experiences must also be recognized for the impact they have on an individual’s life.

A number of types of mentoring are commonly discussed. Galbraith and Cohen (1995) describe mentoring as “a deliberate effort to support traditional and nontraditional students from diverse backgrounds in formal and informal settings” (p. 5). Carmin (as cited in Caldwell & Carter, 1993) takes the concept of mentoring further by including a number of variables in his definition. He states:

Mentoring is a complex, interactive process occurring between individuals of differing levels of experience and expertise which incorporates interpersonal or psychosocial development, career and/or educational development, and socialization functions into the relationship. This one-to-one relationship is itself developmental and proceeds through a series of stages which help to determine both the conditions affecting and the outcomes of the process. To the extent that the parameters of mutuality and compatibility exist in the relationship, the potential outcomes of respect, professionalism, collegiality, and role fulfillment will result. Further, the mentoring process occurs in a dynamic relationship within a given milieu. (pp. 10-11)

Torrance, Goff, and Satterfield (1998) define mentors as “influential people who significantly help us reach our major life goals. They have the power to promote our welfare, training, learning, or careers and are usually identified as having outstanding knowledge skills, and expertise in a particular domain or area” (p. 4).

Dogson (as cited in Caldwell & Carter, 1993) distinguishes between life and career mentors. “Career mentors have an interest in the career progression of the protégé. Life mentoring subsumes career mentoring and has in addition an interest in the life development of the protégé. Life mentors are also career mentors, but the reverse is not true” (p. 12). Dogson believes that there are three ways to form a relationship between a mentor and mentee. “These are: a) those which are initiated by the protégé, b) those initiated by the mentor, and c) serendipity” (p. 13). The mentor-protégé relationship that developed in the Edcouch-Elsa School District was initiated by the mentor, Francisco Guajardo, who helped a number of students reach major career goals.

The Need for Tacit Knowledge

Research has shown that high-ability, minority students often lack tacit information about educational opportunities and procedural requirements that would lead to an enhancement of their professional goals. Until recently, questions related to students’ social and emotional needs were considered only when a recommendation for grade acceleration was being considered. To eliminate and recognize the social and emotional fears that sometimes stand in the way of students’ educational opportunities, teachers must recognize more than just ability; they must also understand the culture and socioeconomic background of their students.

Six years have now passed since Guajardo began his one man campaign for change and enrichment in the lives of his students. Since that time, financial support for his yearly trip is now supported by local lawyers and doctors. Thus, the list of supportive mentors has grown and Guajardo now spends time counseling students and writing grants.

In response to a letter of congratulation and appreciation that I sent to Guajardo, he wrote

My mission as a high school teacher has been to raise my students’ level of expectations. It is perhaps the toughest objective for teachers, but it can be done. It simply requires work, work, and then more work.

Even with all the work, however, we must do more; we must develop relationships with our students. When we have a working relationship with a student, we gain their trust. Only then, will they truly believe us when we tell them they belong in a place such as Yale, Harvard, or Columbia. Simultaneously, we must develop relationships with parents, because they too have to be sold on the extraordinary. There are no shortcuts. And it’s entirely possible for just about any kid. (F. Guajardo, personal communication, October 3, 1997)

Thus, Guajardo’s pattern of planting the seed with his high school juniors, providing an opportunity, then nurturing parents to believe in the dream is supported by research (McLeod, 1987; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1994). Gándara (1995) found that not only parents, but also older siblings contribute to the success of high ability Hispanic students.

Now, six years after Guajardo’s first group of students went east to continue their education, the fruit of his efforts is being harvested. Some of his first crop of students, now Ivy League graduates, have returned to the south Texas Rio Grande Valley to begin their careers and to mentor their brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends. If there is ever a doubt in your mind as to whether mentoring works, plan a trip to south Texas and visit with Francisco Guajardo at Edcouch-Elsa High School. Very soon, your doubts will disappear.

Arrillaga, P. (1997, September 14). Teacher inspires students to strive for Ivy League. The Monitor, pp. D1, D6.
Barta, P. (1997). In South Texas, universities seed a powerful Hispanic middle class. Wall Street Journal Texas Supplement, p. B1.
Caldwell, B. J., & Carter, M. A. (1993). The return of the mentor. Washington, DC: Falmer Press.
Galbraith, M. W., & Cohen, N. H. (1995). Mentoring: New strategies and challenges. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 66, 5.
Gándara, P. (1995). Over the ivy walls: The educational mobility of low-income Chicanos. New York, NY: State University of New York Press.
McLeod, J. (1987). Ain’t no making it: Leveled aspirations in a low-income neighborhood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Torrance, E. P., Goff, K., & Satterfield, N. B. (1998). Multicultural mentoring of the gifted and talented. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Wang, M. C., Haertel, G. D., & Walberg, H. J. (1994). Educational resilience in inner cities. In M. C. Wang & E. W. Gordon (Eds.), Educational resilience in inner city America: Challenges and prospects (pp. 45-72). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


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