Mentoring, guiding and supporting young adults into post-secondary education and the work world is crucial in today’s world. These roles have also created a deeply fulfilling, meaningful and collaborative vocation for Jay Gosselin, founder and president of MentorU and the Discover Year program. As he states, “we need to help young people reach for the limits of their capacity and hold them accountable to this standard while at the same time showing them respect, empathy and understanding”.
Can you describe the “a-ha” moment that led to the development of the Discover Year program? Why do you think a Discover Year is more relevant than ever for young students in Canada?
As the story often goes, I was lying in bed one night trying to sleep when my mind was taken hostage by a storm of ideas. These ideas had to do with the current state of career and educational transitions in our society. I had thoughts about what young people need as well as how my own unique talents and interests could be of use in helping them make more positive and purposeful transitions. The epiphany was rooted in my own personal experiences in education as well as my recent professional experience working with young adults in both the secondary and post-secondary setting.
I had spent the last 3 years working at a large university where I recruited high school students through university fairs and high school presentations. I was heartbroken by the conversations I had with these students. Mostly, I found it hard to digest the way they explained their decision-making process and the factors they were weighing in their journey. They too often spoke of choosing programs that were “practical” or “secure” or - worst of all - “where they could make a lot of money.” I so badly wanted them to maintain the youthful energy, curiosity and enthusiasm they displayed when they told me about their lives and interests outside of the classroom. But by the time we got around to talking about school, they were often drained of these positive emotions. These 12,000 conversations left me very uncomfortable. I had also begun reading a lot about career development, human motivation and the state of education in the modern economy. The confluence of these experiences created the spark for the program, which was further developed over the next two years as I had transitioned into a job at the CO-OP program within the same university, and simultaneously began a master’s degree in educational counselling. My experience working with university students and their employers through the CO-OP office enabled me to synthesize the needs of the students with the needs of the labour market – most notably the “soft” skills like collaboration, problem-solving and effective interpersonal communication.
The Discover Year is a semi-structured program wherein students are supported in taking meaningful action, are surrounded by open-minded adults and peers, and are coached to help them better understand their authentic selves. Through experiential learning, explicit skill development and self-discovery, they build their confidence, self-awareness, motivation and adaptability.
While purposeful gap years have always been a valuable tool to help young adults make positive transitions (Harvard University has officially been recommending them since 1973), programs such as ours are more important now than ever before.
Today’s high school environment is a far cry from that of 25 years ago. Advancements in technology, globalization and the proliferation of post-secondary education have rendered high school a highly-pressurized environment. Students have access to infinite information and resources, and require adaptability – a construct made up of creativity, critical thinking, interpersonal skills and resilience – to navigate this information effectively and make good decisions. While these skills are meant to be learned through secondary education, the nature of the environment dictates that most students focus on grades rather than these character skills. In short, there is too little time and too much academic pressure to develop these traits properly within the secondary school structure.
Challenges and set backs are part of life as much as triumphs and celebrations. Together they are the experiential ingredients of growth, developing expertise, self-awareness and resilience. How can we mentor, guide and support young students in developing and embracing all of these vital experiential “muscles”?
The approach we use at Discover Year – and that which I attempt to use with all of my clients – can be described as Authoritative teaching or mentoring. The concept, popularized by Angela Duckworth, states that in order to effectively support others in developing the necessary cognitive and character skills to be successful we need to maintain high standards while offering continued emotional support. In other words, we need to help young people reach for the limits of their capacity and hold them accountable to this standard while at the same time showing them respect, empathy and understanding. This, in my opinion, is the most effective way of supporting others in their journey toward a Significant life. Unfortunately, I do not believe that most young people are receiving this kind of support. We tend to make significant demands on them without offering appropriate guidance, or we offer them compassion without helping them set goals that push them outside of their comfort zone. Consider your average young person’s job search as an example. I believe this scenario illustrates the differences between the typical modern-day approach and that which we use at Discover Year.
In today’s economy, both the media and academic literature often share a message that projects a very bleak picture of the labour market and its prospects for the future. We use terms such as “precarious work” and the “gig economy” to describe the opportunities available to young workers, painting the picture that traditional forms of employment are not only vanishing, but that this change is ultimately catastrophic (extreme compassion). Parents inculcate their children with the idea that a post-secondary education in a “practical” field of study is the only way to build a successful career (inauthentic goals). We all encourage young people to get out there and apply to jobs. We sometimes offer them advice to craft an elevator speech, be persistent in approaching employers and to create a unique “personal brand.” The problem is that these are complicated processes and skills, and most adults have neither the capacity nor the interest to guide young people to develop them properly (highly demanding expectations absent of meaningful guidance). We overestimate what young people know, and underestimate what they are capable of with the proper support.
At Discover Year, we help our students re-frame the opportunities available to them in the modern economy by introducing them to over 100 incredible mentors who have learned important lessons through short-term work, setbacks and detours. Our mentors describe these experiences as crucial in their journey toward fulfilling their potential. Our community members have been drawn from a wide array of educational, career and ethnic backgrounds. They are living, breathing proof that a strong character and adaptability are more important to a person’s success than studying in a particular field.
Throughout our year-long program, we not only tell our students that elevator speeches and interpersonal communications are important elements of an effective career - we offer them resources and weekly workshops to help them build, refine and implement these skills (and others) on an ongoing basis. We provide them with consistent feedback as they move through the process – we show our appreciation when we see them working hard, and we remind them when they are not showing commitment to their own progress or the program.
Can you comment on your own growth as a counselor given your many varied experiences and particularly since founding Mentor U and the Discover Year program?
Without a doubt, my greatest area of personal growth since undertaking training in counseling has been my listening skills and my ability to demonstrate empathy towards others. I have seen the incredible power of approaching life as a learner, and - as Stephen Covey would say - seeking first to understand. I used to listen only to respond, and would often stage-hog conversations, thinking that I knew things others didn’t. Developing listening skills and humility through training, experience and self-management has enabled me to connect with other people on a much deeper level.
My work through MentorU and the Discover Year offers me consistent opportunities to continue implementing and refining these skills – something I am incredibly grateful for. While facilitating a leadership session with corporate clients or a Discover Year workshop, I often think to myself that, subconsciously, I created these programs as a way for me to continue to learn and develop these important skills. I regularly draw from my varied experiences in education, work, sports and travel to help me relate to clients and students. I would not be effective as a coach had I not lived these myriad experiences in advance of my journey into counseling. Every experience I had through my adolescence and early career helped shape my own personal culture and that of my company. As Steve Jobs famously said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward.” I look forward to the many lessons to come.