Living the Research: A Conversation with Two Mentors

Anna Barry

In her role at AIR, Manolya Tanyu is a senior researcher who evaluates school- and community-based interventions designed to promote youth development and well-being. Her colleague, Anna Barry, is a social media co-lead and youth engagement associate for the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs (IWGYP), a federal collaboration facilitated by AIR that supports programs and services focusing on youth. 

Their commitment to supporting youth extends beyond the world of research and technical assistance, and beyond their work at AIR. They both volunteered, in different capacities, to serve as mentors to youth. In this conversation, they discuss what they’ve learned and gained from youth-adult mentoring, how their hands-on experience affected their work at AIR, and why anyone considering becoming a mentor to a young person should take the plunge. 

Q: What inspired you to become a mentor?

Anna Barry

Anna: When I was a college student, mentors helped me discover some career paths that I didn’t know existed, and one of them helped me secure an internship on the Hill. I’m still close to my mentors today. They showed me the value of mentoring, and I wanted to provide that same service to others. I serve as an ambassador for my graduate program, which means that I’ve made myself available to any new or prospective students who have questions about what it’s like to work in education policy, or to work in a non-profit, for example. 

At AIR, I’m a youth engagement associate for IWGYP and work with diverse youth from across the country to elevate their voices to the federal government and facilitate federal youth-adult partnerships. Through the IWGYP project, my colleagues and I established the Youth Editorial Board, a cohort for these youths. For 10 months, we met with them as a group, twice a month; we also paired off and met frequently one-on-one with individual mentees. 

Manolya Tanyu

Manolya: I first learned about mentoring 20 years ago, as a graduate student in Wisconsin, from a professor. I loved the idea of individuals from different generations learning from one another and building shared experiences, and I’ve been studying youth development and resilience through positive relationships ever since. 

On a personal level, I've noticed that it often feels like adults and youth are living in different worlds, like we don’t know how to relate to each other across generations. Of course, COVID increased that isolation. When the world reopened, I wanted to break down some of those barriers. I signed up to participate in a mentoring program at a local high school. My research has mostly involved evaluating structured mentoring programs, and my own lived experience really helped me understand what the literature was talking about.      

Q: How did your mentoring experience affect your work at AIR?

Manolya: It’s given me the confidence that comes from lived experience. I am better able to understand why something will or won’t work. It’s shown me some of the real-world limitations that can hinder outcomes—factors that are discussed within the research.

For example, the literature tells us that when people sign up to mentor an unrelated child, they often have outsized expectations about changing that child’s life. In practice, it’s important for mentors to calibrate their expectations: They’re entering into a stranger’s life, and are not present in the day-to-day experiences of the child. In my case, my mentee also had multiple restrictions on her time, and her parents didn’t want her to have a cell phone, so I couldn’t check in with her as often as I’d want. I knew from the research that it’s important to adjust to the mentee’s needs and schedule, but it was something else to experience that in practice. 

That’s… my number one takeaway about working with youth: to treat them as individuals, to not assume that a cookie-cutter relationship model will work. You want to let them drive the relationship and show you how you can really help them.    

- Anna Barry

Anna: That’s probably my number one takeaway about working with youth: to treat them as individuals, to not assume that a cookie-cutter relationship model will work. You want to let them drive the relationship and show you how you can really help them. I’ve mentored several youth who were deeply impacted by gun violence, for example, and with them, I learned to make myself available, but not impose or insist on talking. Maybe they’re not ready to talk at the specific moment that I would pick, but hopefully they feel comfortable reaching out whenever they are. 

Manolya: At AIR, we’ve been trying to center the youth perspective more in our work—and mentoring has reinforced the importance of that to me personally as well. As a general rule, we also adhere to a lot of adult conventions, like business hours. But for the youth working with us, their school schedule takes priority, so it's up to us to create space and make it work for them.      

Q: How do you establish supportive and meaningful relationships with mentees?

Anna: I definitely encourage having a mix of both structured and social mentor-mentee meetings. Of course, we’re there to help them with their growth and career goals. But sometimes, starting a meeting with a board game, or even just casual conversation and laughter, can go a long way to building a strong rapport.

In general, I find it easy to relate to many of the challenges my mentees face. I’m 25 years old, so many of their experiences are still very familiar to me—trying to figure out career options, navigating challenges at school, finding internships, and so on. That being said, I think I’m learning so much more from my mentees than they learn from me.

If you’re interested in potentially mentoring a young person, the following resources can help you get started:

  • The federal government’s page on mentoring, which includes definitions, research, and resources.
  • MENTOR, a national mentoring partnership with an extensive resource library.
  • The National Mentoring Resource Partnership, which provides training, technical assistance, tools, research summaries, and other information for youth mentoring programs.

Manolya: I totally agree with that! I’m actually mentoring students who attend the same school as my child, and learning about some of the challenges other students face builds my awareness and humility as a mentor. One of my mentees had a pretty negative outlook on her future—she thought that her career prospects were sort of doomed because she’d experienced so much trauma. It took me a while to understand how that mentality had formed, but it was incredibly daunting.

Unlike Anna, I’m a few decades older than my mentees, but that just gives me more life experience and perspective. I use that to relate to my mentee, to help find solutions to some of the challenges they face. I wanted to convince my mentee that her past would not define her future, and I had plenty of examples from over the years to draw upon.      

Q: What advice would you offer someone who is considering becoming a mentor?

Anna: Do it, do it, do it! It doesn’t matter what your background is or how old you are—everyone’s lived experiences are valuable and can help others. You’ll see growth in young people, and you’ll grow yourself.

Manolya: Also, there are lots of different ways to be a mentor, lots of different settings where it can take place. You don’t necessarily have to sign up for a structured program—if there’s a young person that you interact with regularly in your community, you can build organically on that relationship. In a lot of ways mentoring is about social capital: You’re broadening a young person’s horizons. You’re helping them discovering opportunities, talk them through what is possible, and help test them out in a safe space.