In my work as a mentor with mostly low-income, first-generation, aspiring college students the phrase, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” has taken on a new meaning.

Today in Nashville, there are many entities in place to serve the “at-risk” demographic. Different kinds of advocacy groups and support services fill the halls of all MNPS schools and various community centers, all with a desire to serve. While it is noble that so many want to serve the “traditionally under-served,” I wonder if in our desire to serve, are we really teaching our youth to fish or are we just giving them a fish?

Specifically, when helping young people access college, are we teaching them to do the work or are we doing the work for them? If a mentor puts pressure on himself to have all the answers and single-handedly will students to post-secondary education, the young people will not thrive and develop new skills. I would argue that the college mentor’s approach needs be centered on providing information and highlighting student options.

Many times mentors become frustrated because they feel like young people are not asking many questions about college. More often than not, this is because they do not know what questions to ask. It is a mentor’s responsibility to provide information that spark questions and coach young people as they navigate college transition systems (financial aid, types of post-secondary institutions, majors, dorm life, and more)

How is this done? By presenting facts and having the compassion, empathy, and patience to help young people understand for themselves. The college search process is a chance to practice decision-making and explore resources, which are critical skills for survival at the postsecondary level. If we try to make all the decisions and do all the legwork for our youth we undercut their ability to be self-advocates.

Anyone who has graduated college knows that there are systems in place in American education that, for better or worse, must be navigated. Young people need people in their lives that can help them understand their options within these systems. Mentors will not always be around to advocate on a student’s behalf, they must develop the skill of self-advocacy. Calling admissions counselors to see if aid is available for your students does not have the same long-term impact as coaching your students through contacting admissions representatives themselves.

Engaging young people with basic information about options is a means of empowering them to ask questions and understand for themselves how to navigate these systems. By taking ownership of the higher education process, the student will begin to understand his or her own power, and the mentor becomes the cheerleader on the sideline.

The young person now knows how to fish.