Volume VI Number 1, April 1999

Opening Doors through Mentoring: One Program's Experiences Using the Internet

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
Deb Cronheim
University of Washington

(This article is based on the DO-IT presentation at the Technology and persons with Disabilities Conference 1999.)

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, in which a man named Mentor was given the responsibility to educate the son of Odysseus. "Protege" refers to the person who is the focus of the mentor. Today, mentoring is associated with a variety of activities including teaching, counseling, sponsoring, role modeling, job shadowing, academic and career guidance, and networking.

Mentoring in DO-IT

Mentors are valuable resources to their proteges in project DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). DO-IT, primarily funded by the National Science Foundation and the State of Washington, serves to help young people with disabilities successfully transition to challenging academic programs and careers, including science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Most DO-IT Mentors are college students, faculty, practicing engineers, scientists, or other professionals who have disabilities. Proteges are high school students who are making plans for post-secondary education and employment. They all have disabilities including vision, hearing, mobility, and health impairments, and specific learning disabilities. Frequent electronic communications and personal contacts bring DO-IT proteges and mentors together to facilitate academic, career, and personal achievements. New mentors are given tips for getting started. They include:

o Get to know each protege. What are his/her personal interests? Academic interests? Career interests?

o Introduce yourself. Share your personal interests, hobbies, academic interests, career path.

o Explore interests with proteges by asking questions, promoting discussion, pointing to Internet and other resources.

o Encourage participation in DO-IT activities and try to attend activities when possible. Mentor-protege relationships are strengthened through face-to-face contact!

o Facilitate contact between students and people with shared interests or resources (e.g., professors, professionals, service providers, friends).

Introducing proteges to mentors with similar disabilities is a strength of the DO-IT program. As reported by one protege 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."

Participants learn strategies for success in academics and employment. Mentors provide direction and motivation, instill values, promote professionalism, and help proteges 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 participants move from high school to college and careers they too become mentors, sharing their experiences with younger participants.

There are probably as many mentoring styles as there are personality types and no one can be everything to one person. Each DO-IT participant benefits from contact with several mentors.

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. 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 proteges 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 and proteges 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. Messages can also be sent to all mentors or all proteges through special mailing lists.

While most communication occurs via electronic mail, some mentors meet their proteges during summer study programs at the University of Washington and at other DO-IT activities across the United States. In-person contact strengthens relationships formed on-line.

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."

A Research Study

DO-IT has been studying the nature and value of electronic mentoring since 1993. Thousands of electronic mail messages have been collected, coded, and analyzed; surveys were distributed to Scholars and Mentors; and focus groups were conducted.

Preliminary findings suggest that computer-mediated communication can be used to initiate and sustain both peer-peer and mentor-protigi relationships and alleviate barriers to traditional communications due to time and schedule limitations, physical distances, and disabilities of participants. Both young people and mentors in the study actively communicate on the Internet and report positive experiences in using the Internet as a communication tool. The Internet gives these young people support from peers and adults otherwise difficult to reach, connects them to a rich collection of resources, and provides opportunities to learn and contribute. Participants note benefits over other types of communication. They include the ability to communicate over great distances quickly, easily, conveniently, and inexpensively; the elimination of the barriers of distance and schedule; the ability to communicate with more than one person at one time; and the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Many report the added value that people treat them equally because they are not immediately aware of their disabilities. Negative aspects include difficulties in clearly expressing ideas and feelings, high volumes of messages, occasional technical difficulties, and lack of in-person contact.

Preliminary findings of this study suggest that peer-peer and mentor-protigi relationships on the Internet perform similar functions in providing participants with psycho-social, academic, and career support. However, each type of relationship has its unique strengths. For example, peer-to-peer communication includes more personal information than exchanges between mentors and protigis.

It is often reported in the literature that peer and mentor support can help students with disabilities reach their social, academic, and career potential. However, constraints imposed by time, distance, and disability make such relationships difficult to initiate and sustain. Practitioners and parents should consider using the Internet as a vehicle for developing and supporting positive peer and mentor relationships.

DO-IT Resources

To contact staff, request publications or ask questions about the program or the research study, send electronic mail to XX doit@u.washington.edu. For information resources related to DO-IT or to improving access to college, careers and technology for people with disabilities, consult the DO-IT World Wide Web page at http://www.washington.edu/doit/

Join the doitsem discussion list if you are interested in issues pertaining to individuals with disabilities and their pursuit of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology academic programs and careers. To join the group, send a message with a blank subject line to listproc@u.washington.edu. In the body of the message type "subscribe doitsem Firstname Lastname," where "Firstname Lastname" are replaced with your real name.

A 14 -minute videotape, Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet, may be ordered by sending a check for $20.00 to DO-IT. It describes the on-line community set up by DO-IT and features mentors and proteges with disabilities.

University of Washington
Box 354842
Seattle, WA 98195-4842
206-221-4171 (FAX)
206-685-DOIT (voice/TTY)
888-972-DOIT (voice/TTY) WA
509-328-9331 (voice/TTY) Spokane
Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9800324. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Burgstahler, B. & Cronheim, D. (1999). Opening doors through mentoring: One program's experiences using the internet. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 6(1).