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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Online All the Time: Cyber Mentors in Action

Using the Web to help give students hope for college and beyond.
By Nancy Carson

Sitting back-to-back pretending to type on imaginary keyboards, Laura Moreno and J. R. Peña play out a typical mentor-mentee conversation as others call out questions and suggestions.

Credit: Juli Reiten

Five projects across the country are using technology as a tool to help students in migrant farmworker families stay in school and broaden their life choices. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, these projects all aim to learn whether technology can counter the disruption in education that comes from moving throughout the school year.

One of the five, called Project ESTRELLA (Encouraging Students through Technology to Reach High Expectations in Learning, Lifeskills, and Achievement), is designed for secondary students home-based in Texas who migrate to Illinois, Montana, and New York. Their families leave Texas in early spring and often do not return until Thanksgiving, making it nearly impossible to complete courses and graduate.

To counter these difficulties, ESTRELLA (which means star in Spanish) links students to online schoolwork and mentoring. Each student receives a laptop computer and access to a toll-free line through which he or she downloads lessons (from NovaNET, an online education services provider) and communicates with mentors. In return, students agree to work steadily and stay in touch while traveling, and families commit to providing quiet space for studying (very difficult in small or makeshift houses) and supporting the project's goals.

In the program's first two years, ESTRELLA students have completed 120 semester credits, and eight students have graduated from high school because of this online effort.

The following description of Project ESTRELLA's online mentoring component is excerpted from Linking_Learning, Summer 1998. Linking_Learning periodically provides updates on all five projects.

Going to college can seem as impossible as going to the moon for a migrant student in a family with limited income, little or no secondary education, and no knowledge of college life or even how to apply.

To combat these obstacles, the ESTRELLA Project enlisted cyber mentors -- twenty-four students from the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio, Texas. These cyber mentors provide online encouragement and information, and act as role models for ESTRELLA students. UIW was a natural choice: To graduate, UIW students must complete at least forty-five hours of community service, thirty of those hours with one group or agency.

The enthusiasm of the cyber mentors is contagious. At a May training session, as other UIW students were going home for the summer, fourteen cyber mentors got together for a final effort. Everyone was eager to connect with their mentees to keep them on track toward college.

Yesenia Ortz, a UIW senior, acts as Program Assistant for ESTRELLA. "Many of the cyber mentors are from the Rio Grande Valley or Eagle Pass, and a few grew up in migrant families," says Yesenia. "And they are all people who want to help. Many UIW students complete their required hours of service, but keep on volunteering."

Brenda Pessin, ESTRELLA Director, underscores the views of her migrant education colleagues. "Mentors represent a critical link for migrant youth between their current reality and their potential for a college education. Mentors contribute both the promise of a better life and a reason to keep struggling with work and school. They have the ability to encourage their mentees to stay with a difficult task even when the end seems a long way off."

Nancy Carson is a writer and education technology consultant.

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