Extending a helping hand across the great divide

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Mentoring is the latest educational tool to hit these shores from America. First, schools adopted the idea as a way of helping ethnic minority pupils to raise their sights; now universities are getting in on the act. The hope is that mentors will assist ethnic minority students to get jobs. Mentors are like the mother or father you never had - successful, poised adults who will inspire you, have faith in you, and show you how to conduct yourself. They have connections and they open doors.

It's a concept that Norman McLean, careers adviser at the University of East London since 1991, has been using to improve the job prospects of ethnic minority graduates. Four years ago he set up a nationwide mentoring programme, the National Mentoring Consortium (NMC), now the largest in Europe. Yesterday, he organised Britain's first ever ethnic minority careers fair at the University of Westminster.

Ethnic minority students are "like salmon swimming upstream", says McLean, who is Britain's first black careers adviser in higher education. "They get through to higher education despite the odds. It can still be a struggle when they get there and when they come out the other end they still have to struggle. It can be difficult for any student, let alone if you're not from a certain background and class."

Research shows that, compared with their white counterparts, Asian, African and Caribbean undergraduates are twice as likely to be unemployed after graduating, half as likely to be offered employment in their final year - and yet likely to be more highly qualified.

Research also shows that many ethnic minority students lack basic information about what employers require and about recruitment practices and the preparation they need to exploit employment opportunities. This, in turn, often results in poor performance in applications, interviews and assessment centres.

McLean says: "When I arrived at the University of East London I noticed that the students were lacking confidence about their abilities, although academically they were very strong. They needed to make more links with companies. Polytechnics - as it was then - did not have strong milk rounds.

"We've got talented people coming out of universities having to be unemployed or ending up doing cleaning or other menial jobs well below their skills level. At the same time we have employers who say they want to recruit ethnic minorities but `please help us to do that'."

Fifty-six companies and 15 universities are taking part in the scheme, and by the end of this year, 2,000 people will have been through it. Among the companies are Abbey National, Sainsbury's, Coopers & Lybrand, Marks & Spencer, Tetra Pak and WH Smith. The most recent firms to join up are British Airways, East London & City Drug Services, the London Borough of Brent, Northamptonshire Police, Thames Valley Police and West Midlands Police. The Bar Council and the Law Society are thought to be interested in signing up next year. The universities include University College London, Durham, the University of North London and Leeds Metropolitan University.

McLean believes that "everyone wins" from his mentoring scheme. "We are helping employees of companies to understand more about ethnic minorities. The students, of course, are getting a lot of confidence-building and sometimes get a work placement out of it, depending on the employer. The employers who want to be in contact with ethnic minorities have a head start in ethnic recruitment. It's a one-stop shop for motivated ethnic minority undergraduates."

The Commission for Racial Equality has evaluated the scheme, which links ethnic minority undergraduates in a one-to-one relationship with an employed mentor who provides professional expertise, personal development, encouragement and support. Mentor and mentee must have a minimum of 12 hours' contact. At the outset they must draw up a "learning contract", setting out what they are trying to achieve.

Of the 19 mentors surveyed, 63 per cent had maintained contact with their mentees after the end of the programme. Six mentors reported difficulties in the mentoring relationship such as mentees not keeping appointments. Of the 18 mentees surveyed, 55 per cent said their expectations had been met. Thirty-eight per cent of mentees has spent more than the required time with their mentors. Some mentees with white mentors said it was hard to discuss racial issues.

Advantages of the scheme quoted by students included the demystification of previously intimidating institutions, occupations or procedures, the positive impact of role models to raise aspirations and the self-discipline resulting from the demands of the scheme.

The Government has latched on to the benefits. McLean has advised the Department of Education and Employment and mentoring is to form part of next year's "Gateway" project designed to get 250,000 young people into work. President Clinton has personally advocated the benefits of mentoring.

`People need help with things we take for granted'

the mentee

Awad Waren, 37, graduate of North London University, who now works as a print operator.

"I came to Britain as a refugee from Sudan in 1991. I was doing a business degree at the University of North London when I heard about the mentoring scheme in 1994. I thought that because my English wasn't good and because I thought I was at a disadvantage culturally, I'd get trained.

I'd been working in Sudan in an accountancy job but it was totally different to here. It was all manual. Here, as I've discovered, it's mainly computerised. The work environment was different so I thought that if I could gain something through the mentoring scheme it would be good. I met Aqeel, and that was a good thing because I knew that he was also from an ethnic minority. I could see that he was doing very well. That was an encouragement, first of all. Secondly, I was able, for the first time, to see the work environment in Britain through Sainsbury's.

I was trying to do a project for my business studies and the analyst in Aqeel's department helped me gather some information on sales in London and the South-east. Now I'm a print operator - something totally different from my studies. I thought it was much more realistic for me to get to know the working environment and interact with other people and take it from there. Training on a one-to-one basis was good for me. Now I'm working I think I'm improving my English and my communication as a whole, which will help me to get back into business. Once I've got a job in my area I'll be ready to give the support I got from Aqeel on the scheme to other people in ethnic minorities."

Aqeel Janjua, 39, is project manager at Sainsbury's.

"I joined the scheme three years ago and have had a mentee each year since. They try to match the needs of the mentees with the skills of mentors. In the case of Awad, who is from the Sudan, we were matched because he was finding it difficult to learn English at the same time as studying accounting and keeping up with responsibilities for his wife and children.

At that time I was also studying while working and so I was most probably going through the same sort of thing. Second, I wasn't born in this country either. I was born in Pakistan and came over here to college at 18. It was most probably a similar situation to Awad. I was in college for four years and had to look for a job without having any work experience. I thought Awad would benefit from my experience: how to write your CV, how to go to interviews, what kind of things you would be asked and what to expect of the workplace.

I worked on a couple of projects with him and he put his CV together on the PC at work. We were supposed to spend two and a half days together, but I think we spent about four days in total. In terms of my personal development, I realised that lots of people need help with things we take for granted: how to prepare a CV, go to an interview, find a job. It may seem basic or elementary, but it is not for everybody. Lots of people need extra help to come on to the level playing field. My attitude was that I was there to give Awad some sort of support, not to say he must do this and he must do that. I tried to give him the sense that he was doing it for himself. I encouraged him to mix and to have a circle of friends from different backgrounds. Obviously, once you learn the norms it's easier to operate in a different culture. For example, in Pakistan drinking isn't acceptable. Lots of people find the fact that people socialise after work in the pub a barrier, but you can go to the pub. You don't have to drink to mix."

the mentor