Inside American Express’s virtual mentorship program that’s helping low-income teens get into and pay for college

Alexander-Joseph Silva
Alexander-Joseph Silva, 18, said the program has helped him navigate not only the college process, but the process of coming out as transgender.
  • American Express and a nonprofit called Strive for College have helped more than 4,000 students navigate the complicated college admissions and financial aid process through their program UStrive. 
  • The program pairs students from marginalized backgrounds with American Express employees and cardholders who volunteer as mentors. 
  • With the help of his mentor, Alexander-Joseph Silva, 18, was able to apply to college, secure financial aid, and navigate the process of coming out as transgender. 
  • American Express global president Doug Buckminster says mentorship programs are a key part of addressing inequality. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Alexander-Joseph Silva, 18, is a freshman studying computer science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. His freshman year has been great so far. He's enjoying his classes and making new friends. On top of that, he's proud to have secured more than $30,000 in scholarships. 

It's all a success he wasn't sure was in his future just one year ago. When he was a senior in high school, he was "overwhelmed" and "intimidated" by the college and financial aid process. The staff at his high school was too busy to help him, he said.  

"I really didn't know what to do with college applications," Silva told Business Insider. 

That is, until he met John Fedor-Cunningham, a 54-year-old social impact investor, business owner, and organic farmer who lives in the southern Champlain Valley of Vermont, and Pernambuco, Brazil. Fedor-Cunningham guided Silva through the process of applying to college, securing scholarships, and navigating financial aid.

Fedor-Cunningham, who is gay, also helped Silva navigate the process of coming out as transgender. 

The two connected through a program called UStrive, a virtual mentorship run by the nonprofit Strive for College. The program pairs high school seniors from marginalized backgrounds with executives and cardholders from American Express who volunteer as mentors. 

Silva (who is Hispanic) is one of approximately 4,000 students that American Express and Strive for College have served since launching their partnership in 2018. Some 85% of the student participants are people of color. 

Mentorship programs like UStrive provide young people access to social capital they might not normally have access to. Whether it's career or financial advice, industry expertise, or connections in a field, or just someone to offer guidance, mentors can give mentees a range of positive benefits. On a macro level, they cut through social circles and networks to give people from under-served backgrounds access to valuable resources. 

A 2009 meta analysis of research found that mentorship can greatly boost the mentee's attitudes of themselves and their abilities, and is associated with better career and workplace outcomes. It's also beneficial for mentors. People who mentor are more likely to report feeling engaged at work and feeling a sense of purpose, per a report from software company SAP. 

The benefits of mentoring are real

Each week, Silva and Fedor-Cunningham spent about an hour or so either on the phone or video chatting going over applications, financial aid forms, and Silva's college essay. 

"My mentor helped me when I really didn't know what to do with college applications," Silva said. 

Over time, their mentor-mentee relationship evolved. While Silva was applying to colleges, he was also navigating the process of coming out as transgender to family, friends, and at school. 

The process was stressful for Silva, and he came to rely on Fedor-Cunningham for support. 

"He helped me with college applications, scholarship applications, navigating through my identity and family, finding resources related to my career, and my college decision," Silva said.  

John Fedor-Cunningham
John Fedor-Cunningham encouraged Silva to embrace his whole identity and write about it in his college essay.

Fedor-Cunningham encouraged Silva to embrace his whole identity. After the two talked, Silva decided to incorporate his experience of coming out into his college essay. 

Without the mentorship program, Silva said he would have been "a lot more stressed and anxious" during his last year of high school. He also is unsure whether he would have secured as much money in scholarships. 

"It truly has changed my life for the better," Silva said. 

How mentorship programs help companies advance diversity, equity, and inclusion 

The program has made a real difference for these students, according to Michael Carter, Strive for College founder and CEO. 

"For low-income, first-generation students, mentoring unlocks access to the kind of social capital that can break the chain of generational poverty," he told Business Insider. 

According to American Express Global President Doug Buckminster, the program is a way for the company to tackle diversity, equity, and inclusion in a meaningful way. 

"I'm a big believer and a big beneficiary of educational access. I believe it is a fundamental part of the solution to what is one of the largest problems facing society today, and that's income inequality and a lack of economic mobility," he said. 

Doug Buckminster
Doug Buckminster, global president of American Express, told Business Insider mentorship programs are a crucial part of company DEI efforts.

The financial giant recently announced a $1 billion commitment to address racial inequality. As part of the program, the company set a goal to reach 100% pay parity for its global colleagues (though it did not disclose by when), double its spending with minority-owned suppliers, and hire and promote more people of color, in addition to other measures. 

"Our goal is to help eliminate barriers that have made it more difficult for underrepresented groups to have equal access to economic and social opportunities," Buckminster said. 

Commitments to address racial inequity are on the rise 

Other companies like MasterCard, JP Morgan, and Citi, have also made large financial commitments to address racial inequality in the US. 

Many of these initiatives include mentorship programs. In fact, Strive for College also partners with Deloitte, EY, UPS, UBS, Deutsche Bank, and others in offering the program to its employees. 

In addition, JPMorgan runs a fellowship program that connects young men of color to JPMorgan employees who serve as mentors. Mastercard has a program called Girls4Tech that trains girls in STEM and provides them with mentors in the industry. The Citi Foundation, the firm's nonprofit arm, recently announced a $100 million investment in its Pathways to Progress program, which provides workforce training, career advice, and mentorship to young people from marginalized backgrounds.

Other firms like PwC, MetLife, and EY have partnered with the nonprofit All Stars, which connects young people from low-income communities with mentors in business. 

The programs aren't only beneficial for mentees, but for mentors too. 

American Express employees and cardholders who've participated in the program have told the company president that they feel like they're making "a real difference" by helping young people get into and finance college.  

As Fedor-Cunningham puts it: "As a married gay man, I have frequently experienced discrimination, therefore I have a very personal reason for promoting diversity," he said. "American Express should be commended for their role helping students achieve their dreams." 

Silva recommends the program to other teens. 

"I feel great after completing the program," he said, "UStrive is a great place for teens that need someone to go to for help with things that will push their future farther than they'd imagine."

Read the original article on Business Insider

Comments are closed.