Three years ago, Independence Blue Cross associate Tanya Roberts-Graham saw a story on the company’s intranet about Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence region (BBBS) Mentor 2.0 program. They were looking for mentors for high school students in the Greater Philadelphia region. According to Tanya, “I’ve always worked with teens in my personal life, both through my church and through other volunteer organizations. I’ve always had a heart for young people.”
An Opportunity to Make a Difference
What intrigued Tanya about this specific opportunity was that the students at the BBBS partner school are academically advanced and take college-level classes in addition to their high school courses. Through the BBBS Mentor 2.0 program, mentors or “Bigs” are paired with freshman or sophomore “Littles.” The goal of the program is to empower students to graduate high school, succeed in college, and pursue their ambitions. Although the program technically ends when the Littles graduate from high school, Bigs are encouraged to continue supporting their Littles on an ongoing basis.
Tanya decided to join the program. She was matched with a Little who was a sophomore at the time. Her Little is now a senior who is preparing to graduate.
Finding a Connection
When Tanya’s mentorship began, she and her Little would meet once a month for two hours. There would be a planned activity and then they would talk about what was going on in her Little’s life.
As Tanya recalls, “My Little was pretty shy at first, and I can also be shy at times. But I saw this as an opportunity: it taught me creative ways to get her to open up.”
Although Tanya had to dig a bit to find topics and interests that her Little liked, over time, she learned that her Little had a younger sister who she loved to talk about. Her Little had also recently lost her grandmother. This was something Tanya could relate to. “I’ve also experienced loss in my life and I found that we really connected over this. We were able to talk about loss openly, and share how it made us feel.” As a mentor, Tanya saw herself as an independent voice that her Little could turn to for help navigating situations in her life.
Mentor 2.0 is a hybrid program that includes weekly virtual communication via a digital platform and monthly in person meetings. BBBS’ Littles complete assignments on the digital platform. As part of the program, Tanya is then prompted to review the assignments and respond to her Little. The assignments are fairly structured so that each Big and Little have set points to connect on. This includes setting and achieving goals. They also stay in touch outside of the formal assignments using the online messaging feature.
As an example of an assignment, earlier last year, Tanya’s Little was tasked with starting to think about college and doing some research on potential schools. Tanya’s Little wrote to her that she researched Morgan State, so Tanya talked to her about her own college experience and what she thought were the important factors to consider in choosing a college.
When the pandemic hit last March, BBBS went virtual. Although the virtual program has made it a little more difficult for Tanya and her Little to connect, they still try to stay in touch as often as they can. Her Little is a senior, and in addition to school, she has a job, so sometimes it can be tricky to fit in meetings. But luckily, they’ve been able to stay connected despite the challenges.
A Family Affair
Tanya loved her experience with BBBS so much that she was eager to get others involved in mentoring as well. Her daughter, who also works at Independence Blue Cross, became a Big because of Tanya. Tanya also talked with her Independence Blue Cross coworkers about her experience and one also became a Big with BBBS.
The Importance of Mentorships
For Littles, mentoring exposes them to someone outside of their family circle who can be an independent voice. As Tanya explains, “We encourage our Littles to step out of their comfort zone. We are also another adult that they can go to for advice. For example, if they need pointers on how to talk to their parents about a situation, we can coach them and offer advice.”
Tanya also highlights the importance of mentoring Littles of Color, “Mentorships are especially important for Littles of Color because it exposes them to successful professional men and women. It provides them with a resource, someone in the business world who they can talk to and ask questions.” It also helps to dispel any preconceived notions a Little may have about what someone in the business world is like. For example, it may show them that business people can be down-to-earth and approachable.
For Tanya, mentoring has gotten her out of her bubble and opened her eyes to issues in the community that she might otherwise not have been exposed to. “People have real challenges in their lives. As a mentor, you see the struggles that people deal with on a daily basis. My Little’s school has metal detectors that she goes through every day. This is her reality and is what she deals with prior to starting her school day.”
Tanya hopes to positively influence her Little as she makes important decisions about the next phase of her life. “I want to encourage her and help her during this big transition.”
Advice to Potential Mentors
Tanya is a strong proponent of mentoring young people, “We all have a gift that we can offer others. Our past experiences and lessons can be of real value to a young person. That first step in becoming a mentor is recognizing you have a gift, and then taking the necessary steps to share that gift.” There are several programs to get involved with, including BBBS, Achieve Now, Philadelphia Futures, and Youth Mentoring Partnership. Mentoring can also happen outside of formal programs.
Tanya’s message to others who might be curious about mentorships? “Get comfortable stepping out of your comfort zone. While that first step might be uncomfortable, there will be growth and benefits for both mentee and mentor alike.”
For more information about becoming a mentor, visit Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence region.