Interview | Kelly DeTommaso: Helping One Student at a Time

“A co-worker of mine mentioned this program to me,” says Kelly DeTommaso, an Instructional Designer and Manager of the Global Curriculum Development Team at Merck, in response to how she became an e-mentor. “I originally got involved because there was a perfect match between one of the student projects and my background.” Kelly is a certified Franklin Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People facilitator; a project of the same name was the first project she signed up to mentor a student on, and Kelly has paid it forward ever since: “I enjoyed the experience so much that I kept coming back for more,” she says. “I, in turn, do the same for other colleagues—when I see a project or a student that I think they’d be a perfect match for, I encourage them to volunteer as a mentor. They, too, have chosen to get involved.” Here, Kelly again share her insights, including more about the benefits of mentoring, advice to other would-be mentors, her wider views of education and a poignant story about a starfish…

Personal Traction: What sort of personal benefit do you gain from participating in e-mentoring?

Kelly: I have a passion for youth. I could have benefited greatly from having a mentor in my life as a youth. Personally, it just makes me feel good to know that I may potentially have an impact (no matter how small it is) in the life of a teenager. What makes you say that? I work with youth at our church. I also have two teenagers myself. I understand some of the challenges they face today (and they are more extraordinary than when I was a youth—I am amazed at what they are exposed to at such a young age). I’d like to help the youth from a positive perspective, even if all I can give them is encouragement.

Personal Traction: What are some highlights of working with students?

Kelly: It’s truly a win-win. I don’t give any advise that I couldn’t put into practice myself. I also get a glimpse into the challenges they are facing and it opens up even further dialogue for me and my own kids. I really have fun too. I enjoy dialoging with the youth, especially the females because there’s so much that I can connect with them on. One of the projects I volunteered to mentor several students on was an Interior Decorating project. I had to do some research to be able to give them guidance. It helped as my daughter and I were preparing to decorate her bedroom. I really enjoyed several of the girls styles too.

In fact, I am currently mentoring a student for the second time on a separate project. Our first project was Interior Decorating. When I selected her for a second project this semester I said to her: “Is this the ‘Pink Zebra-striped’ Samantha?” Her response was “Ahhh Kelly!” It just warmed my heart to be able to continue to mentor her on a new project!

Another highlight, or win-win is that some of the students really open up and share a lot, including their mistakes. I can share with them similar mistakes I’ve made at the same age and help them to see how to change things for the future and to encourage them that they can get passed this. It helps them to see that not all adults are perfect, in fact, none of us are. But the adults closest to them in their lives may not be willing to admit that they’ve made the same mistakes. Given that e-mentoring (at is confidential and only first names are shared, it’s a safe environment to be vulnerable for both the student and the mentor.

Personal Traction: What are your thoughts on the state of education in the US and worldwide?

Kelly: My perspective is on the state of education in the U.S. only. I am not confident that we are teaching youth to be successful beyond high school. I base this mainly on the experiences of my high school aged daughter. It still feels very much about teaching toward successful completion of tests and not as much on practical application of the knowledge. That’s one of the reasons why I am an advocate of e-mentoring. This is such a benefit for the youth to take these opportunities to explore topics that may interest them beyond high school and even in high school. I actually am hopeful that one day I will hear about some of the youth that have participated in this program and learn of the success that they have become in their life.

Personal Traction: How does what you do in mentoring, relate to the bigger picture?

Kelly: Have you ever heard the story of the starfish? There was a man walking along a beach one day and he noticed that thousands of starfish were washed up on shore. He knew that they would not survive out of their environment. So, he started to pick them up, one-by-one, and throw them back into the ocean. A passerby noticed his ‘futile’ attempt at saving the starfish. She said to him, “Don’t you realize how many starfish are washed up on the shore? What possible difference can you make?” He bent over, picked up another one, through it back into the ocean, then said to her: “I made a difference to that one didn’t I?” That’s what mentoring is all about. It’s about helping one student at a time, not knowing what the outcome may be, but realizing that you may possibly make a difference in their life. I don’t know about you, but this gives me the chills! What a blessing it is to help someone else.

Personal Traction: What sort of formative experiences in your own education relate to your mentoring approach?

Kelly: Wow, we’re going way back, lol! For me, high school was really about “checking the box”. I went to high school because it was against the law not to. Not that I really would have considered not going to school, but for me, it was a necessary evil. I enjoyed high school more for the social aspect. I had a lot of friends and enjoyed the social opportunity available through school. I studied and did my homework when I had to and got mainly B’s and C’s. It wasn’t until I got to college (three years after I graduated from high school) that I got serious about my education. I had a few teachers, who didn’t necessarily mentor me, but their approach to teaching me was very influential. They helped me to get organized and helped me to focus on what I really wanted to be when I grew up. I embraced education as a result of having my professional experiences align with my educational goals. I was working full-time most of my college years and I could always relate what I was learning to what I was doing on my job. The e-mentoring program is an opportunity to build the bridge for students about practical application of what they are learning in school and through their e-mentoring projects.

Personal Traction: What advice or tips might you have for others considering mentoring a child?

Kelly: Get involved; it’s the most rewarding experience being able to help youth.

Personal Traction: What makes you say that?

Kelly: I have mentored about 10 students through e-mentoring. It started with one student in 2008. I was so impressed with what he was willing to share about himself including his goals and aspirations to get into the NBA. While I couldn’t provide him with any tips on playing basketball, I was able to encourage him and let him know that I believed in him. I hope to one day hear his name in the NBA draft!

When mentoring a student, be willing to share of yourself personally. Don’t hold back. Share the mistakes you have made and the experiences you have had. You’ll be impressed at how this can help break down any walls that the students may put up. In doing so, they realize you are human just like them. You had similar life experiences as they are going through and you survived the chaos of getting through the teenage years.

Do your research and homework too. Follow the project guide so that you have a clear understanding of the expectations of you as a mentor and the students each week. This will help you provide the best guidance you can with the students.

Also, when mentoring on a project outside of your personal experiences, do a little research. It’s a win-win; you’ll learn through the process too. I had an opportunity to “fill-in” for another mentor who needed a little break. In order to get acquainted with the student, I read through the previous mentor-mentee messages just so that I knew my guidance would be aligned to her original guidance. What I learned was that she did so much more research on the project than I was doing. I copied some of the websites that she recommended and saved them for future reference. It was a win-win-win! It helped me step up my game ever since.

Also, be prepared to devote at least 30 minutes a week towards mentoring a student (that time commitment does not double if you mentor 2 students, you actually can mentor 2 or more students very efficiently because you will have already done the research). But, in my experience, it takes me about 15 minutes per message for 1 student.

Finally, realize that not all students are the same. Sometimes you’ll have a very rewarding experience, really connecting with a student  on a project, and on another project, the student just may not open up or stay on track of their assignment. Don’t take that personally. Realize that they have so much going on in their lives that we are unaware of. The environment they sometimes live in is less than ideal and they are negatively influenced. Persevere and don’t give up, on this student, or future students. Let them know that you miss them, when they take a break. Continue to send messages, even if you don’t get any back. You just may impress them with your perseverance.

Personal Traction: Regarding mentoring and education, Is there anything else you care to add, emphasize or share?

Kelly: I am so grateful for this opportunity and I appreciate all the support that mentors receive through David Neils. He will occasionally send encouraging messages just to me. It makes me realize that what I am doing really does matter in the lives of others.

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