Last May, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn Dental Medicine students Kylie Schlesinger and Julie Berenblum made their way through West Philadelphia in their surgical gowns.
After spending the past year organizing virtual mentoring sessions between West Philadelphia High School students and dental school mentors as part of Penntorship, a mentorship program they founded in spring 2020, they were on their way to their first face-to-face meetings with the participants.
Schlesinger and Berenblum drove to the mentees’ homes and gave out bags to celebrate the success of the first year. Interactions that were entirely virtual came to life, and Schlesinger and Berenblum exchanged words of gratitude with students and parents over their snacks and thank-you notes.
“It was very special for us to meet the mentees and thank them,” says Berenblum. “This is very important to us and we’re really grateful that they give us their time and learn as much as we do.”
Despite the program being established in lockdown, Penntorship has continued to bring mentors and mentees together through every year of the pandemic. Looking to the future, Schlesinger and Berenblum plan to continue to cultivate new relationships in the years to come.
The idea for the penntorship first came to Schlesinger in her second year of dental school. In those early days of the pandemic, she tutored a West Philadelphia High student via Zoom as part of the GEAR UP tutoring program in Penn. “He had younger siblings who were in and out of the room, and he was really just distracted and tired,” says Schlesinger. “That’s when I realized I wasn’t really helping with the content, I was just sitting with him and helping him organize his thoughts.”
What they felt the students really needed was less a tutor to help them with their homework and more a mentor to support and motivate them. At the same time, Schlesinger noted how isolated many dental students had become during the pandemic.
A mentorship program, she thought, could address both issues: connecting dental students to the wider West Philadelphia community and helping them meet the needs of local high schoolers, even as they seek shelter locally.
Out of her quarantine bubble, Schlesinger reached out to Julie Berenblum, her best friend on the program and then a first-year dentistry student. Berenblum was excited by the idea and soon they began forming partnerships across campus and throughout Philadelphia to build their junior program.
With the help of Candace Eaton of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which works to facilitate an engagement between Penn and the greater Philadelphia community, the two contacted West Philadelphia High School and began planning the logistics of the program. At the time, Eaton was directing the Netter Center’s after-school programs at the high school, so she knew which students would benefit most from a mentor.
To ensure the program was sustainable and had clear metrics of success, Penntorship also partnered with MENTOR Independence Region (MENTOR IR), an organization that runs mentoring programs using research-based best practices. After Schlesinger and Berenblum recruited dental students to participate and selected 56 from a series of online applications, MENTOR IR offered a two-day, eight-hour training session to equip the prospective mentors with effective tools.
More than 90 percent of West Philadelphia High School’s student body is black; 99% of students are entitled to free lunch. Some might describe the school as “underserved,” but Abigail Ellis, Managing Director of MENTOR IR, says this type of deficit-based thinking can lead to ineffective care.
Instead, the training encouraged mentors to focus on the merits of the mentee and the communities they serve, and to build on each individual’s strengths.
“We trained all of the mentors on a curriculum for people who work with black youth,” says Ellis. “It speaks specifically to helping people explore their own power and privilege and how that manifests in a mentoring relationship.”
Real challenges, real effects
In autumn 2020 Penntorship was ready to start. Schlesinger and Berenblum selected two mentors per mentee and encouraged them to meet weekly or bi-weekly. Like any startup, penntorship faced challenges in its early days. Managing the demands of the program and the 28 groups of mentors and mentees became a full-time job for the Co-Directors. “We were just about to have dinner or talk about a TV show,” says Berenblum. “Then suddenly we’re thinking of something for penntorship, and we have to write it down and put it on our combined to-do list.”
Additionally, the purely virtual mentorship made it difficult for Schlesinger and Berenblum to keep track of some mentors, and some did not meet regularly with their mentees. Other groups struggled to connect via the virtual format as multiple mentees spent multiple sessions in a row with cameras turned off.
“I think we had tons of curveballs thrown at us,” says Schlesinger. “Especially given that it was a pandemic.”
Despite the challenges, the program has begun to thrive. After the first year, Schlesinger and Berenblum created a board that allowed them to share the organizational workload.
In a survey of undergraduates after the first year, almost every respondent said they were satisfied with their mentoring relationship and wanted to continue the program the following year.
A mentee interested in dentistry was able to visit the dental school; Seeing the campus and labs helped validate his career aspirations. He later took his enthusiasm to social media. “He posted photos that said, ‘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 online or play video games. While these connections may seem less influential than career-oriented mentoring, Schlesinger believes they are just as important.
“When we hear that they really just want to hang out, that’s really the goal,” says Schlesinger, “we want it to be a lasting relationship.”
This goal is supported by extensive research on the need for quality mentoring relationships. According to MENTOR IR, one in three children in the United States survive to age 19 without the support of a mentor outside of their family.
“We know that many of these children face additional adversities: single-parent households, they live in poverty, they are chronically absent from school — all of these risk factors,” says Ellis. “But what that tells us is that programs like penntorship are really important to create justice for young people who are facing difficulties.”
In addition to supporting the mentees, the program had a strong positive effect on the mentors. Schlesinger and Berenblum recently published a study about the program that found that mentors felt less lonely, more grateful, and more confident in their abilities to help others. Additionally, nearly all mentors felt a sense of community through their mentoring relationships amid the pandemic.
dreams for growth
As Penntorship enters its third year, Schlesinger and Berenblum have transitioned to more in-person programs, including a recent event offering college admissions assistance to mentees.
With Schlesinger graduating in May and Berenblum about to enter her senior year of dental school, they have handed the reins to allow the program to continue beyond their involvement and the aspiring third-year dental students, Allie Wilk and Jonathan Hwang, for Lead Trainee Penntorship.
Though they may retire from their leadership positions, they still have big dreams for penntorship. They envision the program attracting mentors from across the university and eventually expanding to schools throughout Philadelphia.
“How cool would it be if the program were still alive and thriving after our 20-year reunion?” says Berenblum.