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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Online mentoring provides much-needed support

By Carter Hammett
Special to The Toronto Sun


When Greek author Homer wrote his masterwork, The Iliad, more than four thousand years ago, it is doubtful he realized he was coining a term that would have such a far-reaching impact today. Indeed, in The Iliad, Odysseus entrusts his son Telemachus to his friend Mentor, who guides and teaches the son during the decade Odysseus spends fighting The Trojan War.


Today, "mentoring" has become synonymous with receiving the wisdom and guidance from a more experienced person in any number of models being implemented by schools, businesses and non-profits across the country. Current mentoring trends often involve matching carefully screened volunteers or workers with less-experienced proteges in order to accomplish specific tasks within a pre-determined time frame.

While mentoring has become a popular succession planning tool for many Canadian companies, it is only recently however, that organizations from numerous sectors have begun to embrace the concept of online mentoring as a vehicle for providing support. Over 250,000 foreign-trained workers settle in Canada annually, and this is one group that has been quick to utilize the service as a research tool to communicate with peers who have settled here before them.

Two years ago, Canada Infonet was started as a "pre-settlement" service for internationally trained professionals wishing to move to Canada, says co-ordinator Brigid Elmy. To date, over 700 mentoring relationships have been arranged through the service.

"Our service allows proteges to communicate online with mentors, who will refer them to resources about housing, settlement, job search and labour market, prior to even arriving in Canada," she says. "It's a tool that expedites the settlement and job search process."
Miguel Aguayo
Mentored as many as 67 people online at once


One of the unique features of the site is that it is "protege-driven," Elmy says, meaning that mentees select their own mentors, instead of waiting for a match co-ordinated by a third party. Both mentors and mentees register online and fill out a thorough list of questions and agreements that both parties must adhere to, before a mentoring relationship can commence. Both participants are also expected to go through a six-to-eight-week training period, and outline expectations, objectives and response times during the relationship, Elmy says. Whereas e-mail is the primary communication tool for Canada Infonet, others rely on other forms of online dialogue.

Miguel Aguayo, a former program co-ordinator/online employment counsellor for WORKink Ontario, a virtual employment resource centre for people with disabilities, used chat rooms to conduct "live" discussions with his clients.

"It's difficult trying to type as fast as you talk," says Aguayo, who now leads diversity outreach for CIBC. "Messages may not be clear if you type too much and people on the other end get anxious if they see a blank screen for too long. You need a steady beat, and you have to be careful about how you express emotion. If you use capital letters while typing, people interpret that as yelling."
Online mentoring FAQS
  • For more information, visit: www.canadainfonet.org, or www.workink.com.
  • Skills for Change, a Toronto settlement service, also has a well-known online mentoring program, available at www.skillsforchange.org.
  • HRDC estimates that more than 130,000 Canadian post-secondary students participate in some form of online mentoring.
  • When communicating online, be sure to maintain privacy. Never give out your home address or phone number.
  • Although the jury is still out on vocabulary, try to limit the use of emoticons or Internet jargon (ie. "BTW" for "by the way," or "IMHO" for "In my humble opinion."
    This may become confusing for the person reading on the other end. Most responses are best kept short and sweet.
  • The general preference for informal mentoring seems to be e-mail.


  • At one point, Aguayo estimates he mentored as many as 67 people online at once, responding to questions about job search, discrimination and sometimes, crisis management. He says he was a sort of "online Dear Abby," who tried to remain neutral while wading through dozens of queries.

    Perhaps the biggest challenge of e-mentoring is cultivating rapport. "There are no formal studies about the best methods of online mentor training," Aguayo says. "What made me a good mentor was having a background in social work and employment counselling. Also, having a disability allowed me to express empathy. I have walked in their shoes."

    He found that assigning "homework" like resume writing, was effective for his clients and ensured a continuity of communication.

    Elmy agrees. Canada Infonet provides mentors with training on how to convey warmth in writing e-mails, as well as asking open-ended questions and even "listening" skills, a sort of reading-between-the-lines ability. "Grammar is not the most important skill a mentor needs to have," she says. "Being able to cultivate rapport and commitment is key to developing an effective online relationship."

    Sometimes, the most successful mentoring relationships are ones that move from mentoring to a state of "interdependence," Elmy says. "Sometimes you reach that level where people are exchanging resources that benefit both. Mentors understand the reasons for helping someone else because they understand the difference. It's a rewarding experience."

    (Reach Toronto freelancer Carter Hammett at [journalist4hire@yahoo.com].)



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