Last May, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn Dental Medicine students Kylie Schlesinger and Julie Berenblum set out across West Philadelphia in their scrubs.
After spending the previous year organizing virtual mentorship sessions between students from West Philadelphia High School and mentors from the dental school as part of Penntorship, a mentorship program they founded in the spring of 2020, they were on their way to their first in-person meetings with the participants.
Schlesinger and Berenblum drove to mentees’ homes, handing out goody bags to celebrate the success of the first year. Interactions that had been exclusively virtual bloomed to life, and Schlesinger and Berenblum exchanged words of gratitude with students and parents over their offerings of snacks and thank you notes.
“That was really special for us to meet the mentees and thank them,” says Berenblum. “This is really important to us, and we’re really appreciative that they’re giving us their time and learning as much as we are.”
Though the program was founded in lockdown, Penntorship has continued connecting mentors and mentees during each year of the pandemic. Looking ahead, Schlesinger and Berenblum plan for it to keep fostering new relationships for years to come.
The idea for Penntorship first came to Schlesinger in her second year of dental school. In those early days of the pandemic, she was tutoring a student from West Philadelphia High over Zoom, as part of the GEAR UP tutoring program at Penn. “He had younger siblings who were running in and out of the room and he was really just distracted and tired,” says Schlesinger. “It made me realize that I wasn’t really helping so much with the content as I was just sitting there with him and helping him organize his thoughts.”
In her mind, what the student really needed wasn’t so much a tutor to help with homework but a mentor who might support and motivate them. At the same time, Schlesinger noticed how isolated many dental students had become during the pandemic.
A mentorship program, she thought, could address both issues: connecting dental students to the broader West Philadelphia community while helping them meet the needs of local high schoolers, even while sheltering in place.
From her quarantine bubble, Schlesinger reached out to Julie Berenblum, her best friend in the program and a first-year dental student at the time. Berenblum was sold on the idea, and soon they began forming partnerships across campus and around Philadelphia to build their budding program.
With the help of Candace Eaton at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which works to enable engagement between Penn and the greater Philadelphia community, the pair contacted West Philadelphia High School and began to plan out the logistics of the program. At the time, Eaton ran the Netter Center’s after-school programs at the high school, so she had insight into which students might benefit most from a mentor.
To ensure the program was sustainable and had clear metrics for success, Penntorship also partnered with MENTOR Independence Region (MENTOR IR), an organization which guides mentorship programs using research-based best practices. After Schlesinger and Berenblum recruited dental students to participate, selecting 56 from a slew of online applications, MENTOR IR offered a two-day, eight-hour training to equip the mentors-to-be with tools to be effective.
More than 90% of West Philadelphia High School’s student body is Black; 99% of students qualify for free lunch. Some might label the school “under-resourced,” yet Abigail Ellis, MENTOR IR’s executive director, says that this sort of deficit-based thinking can lead to ineffective mentorship.
Instead, the training encouraged mentors to focus on the assets of the mentees and communities that they serve, building from the strengths of each individual.
“We did train all of the mentors on a curriculum for people working with Black youth,” says Ellis. “It specifically speaks to helping folks examine their own power and privilege and how that shows up in a mentoring relationship.”
Real challenges, real effects
By fall of 2020, Penntorship was ready for launch. Schlesinger and Berenblum selected two mentors per mentee and encouraged them to meet on a weekly or biweekly basis. Like any startup, Penntorship faced challenges in its early days. Managing the demands of the program and 28 sets of mentors and mentees became a full-time endeavor for the co-directors. “We would be in the middle of eating dinner or talking about a TV show,” says Berenblum. “Then suddenly we think about something for Penntorship, and we have to jot it down and put it on our combined to-do list.”
Additionally, all-virtual mentorship made it hard for Schlesinger and Berenblum to keep track of some mentors, and some failed to meet with their mentees regularly. Other groups struggled to connect through the virtual format, with several mentees spending multiple sessions in a row with their cameras off.
“I think we had tons of curve balls thrown our way,” says Schlesinger. “Especially given that it was a pandemic.”
Despite the challenges, the program has begun to flourish. After the first year, Schlesinger and Berenblum created an executive board, which has allowed them to distribute the organizational workload.
In a survey of students taken after the first year, nearly every respondent reported being happy with their mentoring relationship and wanting to continue with the program in the following year.
One mentee who is interested in dentistry was able to tour the dental school; seeing the campus and the laboratories helped affirm his career goals. He later took his enthusiasm to social media. “He posted photos saying, ‘My mentors are the best! I can’t wait to be a dentist,’” says Schlesinger.
Other mentor-mentee groups now meet regularly to watch sports or play video games online. While these connections might seem less influential than career-oriented mentoring, Schlesinger thinks that they are just as important.
“When we hear that they genuinely just want to hang out, that’s really the goal,” says Schlesinger, “We want it to be a sustained relationship.”
That aim is supported by an extensive body of research about the need for high-quality mentoring relationships. According to MENTOR IR, one in three children in the United States will reach the age of 19 without the benefit of a mentor outside of their family.
“We know that many of those kids are facing additional adversity: single parent households, they’re living in poverty, they’re chronically absent from school—all kinds of those risk factors,” Ellis says. “But what that tells us is that programs like Penntorship are really important in creating equity for young people who are facing adversity.”
In addition to helping the mentees, the program had a strong positive effect on the mentors. Schlesinger and Berenblum recently published a study of the program, which found that mentors felt less lonely, more grateful, and more confident in their abilities to help others. Additionally, almost all the mentors felt a sense of community amidst the pandemic through their mentoring relationships.
Dreams for growth
As Penntorship enters its third year, Schlesinger and Berenblum have transitioned to more in-person programming, including a recent event that offered college admissions support to mentees.
With Schlesinger having graduated in May and Berenblum on the cusp of entering her final year of dental school, they have handed off the reins so that the program will continue beyond their involvement, training rising third-year dental students Allie Wilk and Jonathan Hwang to run Penntorship.
Though they may be stepping down from their leadership positions, they still have big dreams for Penntorship. They envision the program drawing mentors from across the University and eventually expanding to schools across Philadelphia.
“How cool would it be if, when we came back for our 20-year reunion, the program were still alive and thriving?” says Berenblum.