Hetal Jani, the Founder and Executive Director of SPEAK Mentorship, works with immigrant high school students across the northeast with a distinct goal in mind: to empower young minds and to build stronger communities. She says, “My calling is to enable people to learn how to access and activate knowledge, identify opportunities, and develop skills and connections to pursue those opportunities”.
The non-profit organization, created in 2013 and formally established in 2015, has successfully conducted over 420 Mentoring sessions in the last year alone. Focused on raising the social and cultural capital of immigrant girls, they are actively looking to grow their footprint and expand across the country. The need to do so is urgent and apparent: the National Skills Coalition (2014) says “without immigrants, the workforce will be insufficient to replace retirees” by 2030.
Additionally, immigrant children make up a fourth of the population of America’s public-school system, thereby further underlining the value of the investment being made by SPEAK. However, barriers and challenges remain, with research reiterating that “immigrant youth face higher risks than non-immigrants for lower school engagement,” (Mossi-Stefanidi et al., 2015). Research shows immigrants and first-generation youth in America often struggle to find their ethnic identity as they try to assimilate and integrate within a novel, mainstream culture, dealing with issues that include acculturative and integrative stress, language acquisition, internal and inter-generational conflicts, and lack of social capital and access to professional internships. But, community connection moderates relations between school engagement and stress from adapting to new cultures (Ahmed, 2018). Through the development of community of visible role models and peers who may be bearing a similar challenge albeit in isolation from each other, SPEAK Mentorship envisions a more diverse future workforce with more women from all backgrounds in positions of power across all fields.
How does SPEAK do this?
SPEAK helps schools become more inclusive by bringing culturally responsive career professionals directly into the school day using virtual platforms while simultaneously developing an in-school peer community that share experiences and provide the social- emotional support necessary to increase school engagement and belonging. This develops the self-efficacy and confidence of students, better preparing them as qualified candidates for college and career. SPEAK does this through their Foundational Mentoring Program and their Speaker Series Leadership Empowerment Course.
Foundational Mentoring Program
The Foundational Mentoring Program harnesses the power of culturally responsive professional mentorship and the development of an immigrant peer community to cultivate the self-awareness and self-development of young people. This in turn enables the target demographic to successfully pursue personal and professional goals and join the workforce as capable leaders. Through the multi-faceted approach of developing 1) peer leaders, called Ambassadors, who create and support an in-school peer community by establishing a Chapter Club, and 2) an e-mentoring program where girls meet virtually with three culturally responsive professionals in careers of interest to the girls, SPEAK increases student use of technology, communication skills with various audiences, familiarity of college and career culture and pathways, access to internships, and school engagement and belonging. This combination of multiple visible role models for these girls, increases their self-assuredness, provides access to information and opportunities, and finally leads to successful and healthy post-secondary pathways.
Students can apply to be mentees in the program either through a partner school or independently. Students applies for SPEAK’s Foundational Mentoring Program and goes through an orientation to understand the model and expectations. A Mentor Connector, a college student, is assigned to a group of mentees at a school and works closely with the Ambassador to ensure the group is supported every step of the way. Each mentoring round, mentees are also paired with other mentees, who serve as accountability partners during the round of 9 mentoring sessions, to ensure further peer to peer relationship development within the school.
The program matches each mentee to three different mentors with diverse backgrounds and skills. Each mentee will go through 9 mentoring sessions with each of the mentors and cover areas such as skills development, career ecosystems and civic engagement. Each of the mentors works with the mentees while embracing their unique experiences and puts together a plan to achieve a foundational level of understanding in each mentorship area. Through this approach of skill building and sharing of relevant experiences, mentor and mentees get to know each other through a series of sessions that incrementally build on top of each other. Meanwhile, Ambassadors go through an additional leadership curriculum, and are expected to lead a SPEAK Chapter Club, where students partake in relevant community building and college access activities. This program has been intentionally designed to provide multiple visible role models and develop peer, near peer, and multiple mentor relationships through all of the individuals that support one mentee during the program year.