How the White House Does Mentoring
High-powered mentors give their teenage protégés access, skills -- and a request to pay it forward.
"We want every student to feel comfortable in this environment, to feel like they can thrive here, and that they belong here," said Frye of the program's design around a wide range of experiences. "We want them to believe that they can develop the skills to perform anywhere, whether it's a high-powered environment like the White House or any place else."
Jackie Mutai, who was selected for the White House program in 2009 as a Silver Spring, Md., high school junior, says that it equipped her with that confidence. "It made me more driven by showing me what I was capable of and how far I could go," Mutai, now a 19-year-old freshman at Rice University majoring in political science and policy studies, told The Root. "Getting better skill sets for life, and having the support of these amazing leaders, helped to push me more."
Paying It Forward
Another reason that Strautmanis jumped to contribute to the program is the difference that mentors have made in his own life. "I wouldn't be here if I hadn't found the first lady as a mentor," he said.
Strautmanis first met Michelle Obama, then Michelle Robinson, during his summer job as a paralegal at a Chicago law firm. She worked there an associate. "I remember asking her what she did, and rather than blowing me off or giving me some pat answer, she invited me in her office to show me what she was working on," he said. "Thinking back, she probably took five minutes, maybe less. But the fact that she valued me enough to invest in me in that small way changed my life."
That initial encounter grew into a friendship, and the new mentor eventually introduced Strautmanis to her fiancé, Barack Obama. "I haven't made a career move without talking to them, but they've been mentors to me in ways both professional and personal," he said. "I'm not only a better public servant, but I'm a better husband and father having had them as mentors. It's been a terrific experience for me."
This pay-it-forward mentality is another critical component to the White House mentoring program. "The only thing that we ask in return is that, when this is all over, that you give back, that you do the same for someone else," the first lady told students at a 2010 National Mentoring Month reception. "The beauty of being a mentor is that anyone can do it at any age. That means if there's a sibling in your life, a friend, a cousin, another person down the road, you can thank your own mentor by turning around and helping pull someone else up."
Mutai heeded the first lady's request by mentoring freshman students at her high school, an extension of her volunteer work as a peer tutor. She says she plans to continue that service now that she's in college. "I feel that being a mentor really humbles a person," she said. "Being a part of a community and helping someone grow and become an adult, it's something that we can learn from. It makes me feel complete."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.