AdoptMent works on goal-setting

In this same workshop we also revisited the topic of brain development. We reviewed the difference between the prefrontal cortex or “White House of the brain,” which has the ability to plan for the future, and the amygdala or “reptile brain” that reacts instinctively in fight/flight/freeze fashion.

This helped to introduce the concept of time perspective. Using part of the framework developed by Stanford professors Zimbardo and Boyd, we talked about the advantages and disadvantages of being either a “present hedonist” or a future-oriented individual. Everyone agreed that it was best to live a balanced life.

Since future orientation is the time perspective that most young people generally need to cultivate, we talked about how athletes who are off season or injured often use visualization as a way to “stay in the game.” Our young people learned that going through the motions in your brain actually improves your muscle memory and the chances of you succeeding in whatever actions you plan to take in the future.

We then dimmed the lights and I led a the group in a guided visualization of a day when they hit all their goals and “earned all the points” they needed. I asked them to sit with the feeling of accomplishment and self-pride. This was the first time that I’ve ever done this exercise, and I did not realize how powerful it would be. One person emerged from the activity with a peaceful aura, but two others became quite emotional. This was a moment when I was especially grateful for the clinical staff in the room. Talk about cathartic!

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Case in point

Well, I promised to follow up my last post with some good news, and I know that at least one of my readers will be disappointed that she won’t get to read about the sense of optimism I feel in the air just yet. Instead, I’m gonna hang out on my soapbox for a little while longer because I’m still working through my irritation.

Last night’s Teens in Foster Care panel was very odd. I think the organizers felt like everyone in the room was on the same page regarding permanency for youth in care 14 and older (roughly 3600 of New York City’s 12,000 children in the system). Funny thing though: I don’t think the panel realized how deeply their message conflicted with one of their guest speaker’s most important points. …And then things got even worse.

Let’s do this good/bad/ugly style.

THE GOOD

Cris Beam. CRIS BEAM. I’d seen her give a reading to a group of young writers back in December, so I’d already heard the whole spiel of how a teenaged daughter entered her life with the suddenness of an unplanned pregnancy. Tonight, however, Beam came with a stronger agenda and she prefaced her reading by dropping some data.

Here’s some straight from NYC ACS: Between the ages of 14 and 15 only 17% of young people in foster care wish to exit the system as an independent adult. By the time they reach 17, however, the percentage of youth who wish to age out to independent living rises to 94%. That means that by 17, only 6% of young people in foster care want to be adopted.

Continue reading

Complaints, concerns, but also causes for optimism

I’ve been delaying writing this post because for a stretch I was too outraged about certain things I’d been hearing in the foster care scene. Outrage is healthy if you can articulate it well and channel it productively, but anger is not the emotion I want to lead with. So, what’s changed? So much in the last two weeks, it seems! But before I get to the good news, let’s start with the issues.

COMPLAINTS

1. Housing is the number one problem facing my emerging leaders, the youngest of whom just turned 21. At the beginning of last semester, we went around the table introducing ourselves to each other. I was struck that with the exception of the two eldest, who are working professionals in child welfare, every single person at the table was facing some form of housing crisis. A couple had to get extensions for their time in care; a couple others didn’t secure formal extensions, but were able to remain in their foster homes out of the generosity of foster parents willing to house them for just a little longer; one was on the verge of losing a NYCHA apartment due to bureaucratic inefficiencies; and still another two were worried that their agencies weren’t moving quickly enough on their housing applications.  Continue reading

#AdoptMent youth take personal stock

I’ve been reticent to blog about my work with the AdoptMent group because they’re a younger set and I’m more protective of their privacy. This is a transitional year, not just within the program, but also in the lives of each of these young people. In my first session with them this school year, we returned to the tasks of adolescent development, but instead of focusing broadly on the topic of identity, this time we talked about personal values and relationships, especially how to strike a healthy balance between independence and connectedness.

Last spring I used Zits comics to get the conversation started. We returned to two strips that dealt specifically with identity exploration, and was really pleased that they all retained the biggest lesson from last spring’s identity self-portrait activity, namely that at this early stage in life staying true to yourself is overrated, and identity crises are actually a healthy part of psychological development.

From that group review, everyone paired off with their mentors to discuss comic strips treating the developmental tasks related to autonomy, relationships, and values. The mentors had handouts that indicated the tasks displayed in each strip, but the mentees first had to work on inferring the topic from the material. The second step in the exercise was to reflect on how they were progressing in each of those tasks. I got to eavesdrop on a lot of wonderful stories about how these young people set up challenges for themselves (e.g., earning the money and planning transportation for a solo trip to New Jersey), and noted how their relationships to their parents were in transition

The final part of the workshop had everyone select one particular developmental task that posed a significant challenge to him or her. Continue reading

The importance of witnessing failure

There is so much I still have to process about the Conference on Emerging Adulthood, including how very different a social science conference is from all the literature conferences I’ve ever attended. Most striking of all was the lack of poor manners and bad behavior, and second to that was the fact that every grad student was accompanied by a research mentor.

I got into a conversation with one such pair following Corey Keyes‘s lovely keynote speech on happiness and mental health, during which he confessed to speaking openly with his students about his own struggle with depression. We were talking about how instructive it is for graduate students to hear their professors talk about struggling, making mistakes, and outright failing at things. The faculty supervisor was telling her student that during one internship she got to witness the top psychologists in the world hold therapy sessions. What was most illuminating for her were the instances when those big-name therapists failed to connect with their clients, missed things that she picked up on, or completely messed up in their responses. In my program, by contrast, our professors did little to dispel the myths that surrounded their ascension to academic stardom. I am not the only one who wondered how I would ever cross the bridge from project-less grad student to tenured professor.

Very late in the game, my advisor finally started to get it. We were sitting in his office, I was very close to tears over a chapter I was struggling to write, and he very gently observed, “I think that what you need from me isn’t academic direction, but a life coach.” By that time, however, I was already so dispirited and embittered, that no amount of comfort could change my mind about leaving academia after graduating. It’s amazing that I ever finished. The first of three times I seriously considered dropping out of my program, a professor I greatly admired met me for coffee and talked me off the ledge, saying that I was precisely the type of student NYU should work to retain and cultivate. For a period we enjoyed a certain kind of intellectual closeness, regularly trading emails with each other at four in the morning. But when she came up for tenure, it was as if that intimacy between us had never existed. Thus began my years- (years!) long search for another faculty mentor.

It’s a sweet little postscript that I now happen to be helping to strengthen the mentoring initiatives at NYU through its diversity and inclusion task force. As a casualty of grad school, I am committed to pushing for social and emotional supports for doctoral students. Research skills can be easily acquired. What isn’t readily learned are the skills necessary to cope with the long road to intellectual autonomy. More seasoned scholars would do their students a huge favor by being more transparent about the vicissitudes of their own professional journeys.

Knowing whom to reach out to (and a meta call for help)

[For Dawn] So I’ve been going through a very specific experience lately that I haven’t really shared with many people in my life, including (perhaps especially) those nearest and dearest to me. Since it’s a situation I’m unfamiliar—and therefore unequipped to deal—with I decided to turn to someone whom I know has handled something similar with tremendous grace and strength. From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem strange for me to bring something so personal to someone whom I’ve only recently met. But our limited number of interactions this year have been so enriching and energizing that I knew she would have a lot of advice and words of wisdom for me. [And thank you very much for all of it. Your kindness is overwhelming.]

This happens to be another good example of how I walk the walk and pass what I’ve learned on to my youth. I recently turned in a proposal to contribute to a transition curriculum for a mentoring program (more on that later), and one of the final activities that I have planned is for each young person to map out a personal support networkand then to label each individual in that web of relationships with the type of emotional and/or practical support s/he provides. 

I think it would be helpful for mentors to prompt their mentees with questions such as:

    • Whom do you turn to when you’re sad?
    • Who is the first person you call with good news?
    • Whom can you rely on to give you relationship advice?
    • If you’re in a silly mood, who’s the best person to laugh with?
    • If you just want to be quiet in someone’s company, whom can you sit with?
    • If you feel like dancing, who is your partner in crime?

I prefer a digital contact list myself, but in the context of this workshop I think it would be better for the youth to collect these contacts in an old fashioned paper notebook. Each page would have someone’s name and contact information, but also important details about that individual (e.g., activities they enjoy, skills they have, etc.). The notebook would be solid evidence of the existence of a community and safety net.

Of course for this exercise to have any value, it’s not enough that young people know they can reach out for help, not enough that they know how to reach out for help. The very first step is ensuring that they are ready to receive help. This is a whole nother ball of wax, as they say, and something that’s been weighing heavily on me lately, because I’ve been learning that even when people explicitly ask for help, they also have their own particular ways of resisting it.

Look! Here is another call for help: If anyone has any bright ideas about helping people who aren’t ready to accept help even if they ask for it, please ping me. I’d love to brainstorm with you. (Y gracias de antemano por cualquier ayuda proporcionada.)

Wooing another guest blogger

Someone else just accepted my invitation to guest post on this blog! Among other things, he is a beloved manager and insightful mentor and I’m hoping that he can write something about the qualities that he looks for in his proteges, and perhaps a little bit about how he works with them.

From what I can tell, he establishes working relationships that achieve the intellectual intimacy of the best teacher-student relationships: If he figures out how you think, and if you can communicate to him what you value in a work environment and where you want to steer your career, he will do whatever he can to ensure you do meaningful work that will put you on a solid path.

Keeping my fingers crossed that this blogger will find the time to contribute here.

How NYU Tisch prepares its grads for the artist’s life

[For Sabrina] Tisch Office of Career Development (TOCD) provides students in the arts with very specialized services that the Wasserman Center is not equipped to offer. There is, for starters, the fact that creative resumes look very different from the standard resume organized primarily by experience. But the primary challenge of sending Tisch grads out into the world is preparing them for non-linear career trajectories. To this end, TOCD offers two main resources: career counseling and a mentor network. Continue reading

How NYU’s career center prepares students to connect to potential mentors

Part of my consulting work for NYU’s diversity and inclusion team allows me to learn about different mentoring opportunities across the university’s schools and divisions. Yesterday I had a terrific conversation with Leah Lattimore, Associate Director of Multicultural Programs at NYU’s Wasserman Center for Career Development, about their Mentor Network. What is really outstanding about the program is the training students and recent alumni (within a year of graduation) undergo before they get access to a database of potential mentors.

Potential is the key word here: part of the student orientation process involves drawing boundaries and managing expectations. Wasserman stresses that students should never ask the question “Will you be my mentor?” explicitly and risk overwhelming their contact. Unless the professional specifies an interest in a long-term, high-contact relationship, they should not expect more than an informational interview.

Wasserman also instructs students in appropriate, professional conduct: on the tone they should use in their written and oral communications, how they should dress, that they should research their contact’s background/company beforehand, that they should send email confirmations and thank you notes, etc. After their training, students must sign an honor code affirming that they promise to abide by these standards or risk access to the Mentor Network. Access, furthermore, lasts only a semester, in order to ensure that students refresh their awareness of professional conduct as they continue building out their networks.

If professionals complain of student behavior, Wasserman steps in. In the worst cases, students are asked to halt communication with their contact, but more often than not, they just need a gentle reminder and an explanation of why their behavior made their contact uncomfortable.

I wish I had known of this program as a student/recent alumna, and I urge all NYU students to take advantage of this great resource.

The importance of networks, of community

This has been a tough week for a lot of my friends and colleagues, but what is getting many of us through has been time spent in the company of like-minded, big-hearted people. Just as it’s vital for young people to have caring adults in their lives, it continues to be necessary for all of us grown-ups to cultivate circles of support. That said, I surprised myself a little while ago by deciding that I was no longer going to wrestle with how to build out a mentoring component to my program, because I realized that what I really want to do is to help young people build their own networks. A network, after all, is a web of connection, a safety net. In order for youth to be able to make these connections, we need to equip them with certain tools: how to create professional social media profiles and a meaningful online presence, how to reach out to professionals for informational interviews—of course. But most fundamentally of all, young people need to learn how to nurture a confident, positive sense of self, so when they do take the risk of reaching out to strangers for a favor, they do so in the knowledge that they have something of value to offer in return.