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Students with disabilities are more likely to experience discrimination in the job-seeking process than other graduates, a fact that our own research in the Careers Service at Staffordshire University confirmed. The university has a commitment to ensuring that all of the approximately 700 disabled students enrolled here have access to a range of support services.

Among them is a mentoring project that was put in place in January 2001 with the particular needs of disabled students in mind. Initially funded by Innovations , a division of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Interact is now embedded within the Careers Service under the umbrella of Diversity Mentoring HE and is one of our strategic initiatives to widen participation and retain students from underrepresented groups.

Purpose: Ease transition from academe to the workplace

Our main objective is to ease students' transition from higher education to the workplace and other postgraduate experiences by empowering them, increasing their confidence, and providing them with access to professional knowledge and experience--all via a mentor. An indirect role of the scheme is also to increase employers' understanding of disability issues, which will in turn develop work experience opportunities as well as promote participation and retention of graduates within the local economy.

The "official" duration of our scheme is 6 months, although its impact is actually unlimited as participants tend to retain "unofficial" contact after the scheme formally ends. Students and mentors can also reapply if they wish, and in fact one of the mentors has been on the scheme since its beginning.

The numbers of individuals taking part in the scheme varies each year. This year, there are 11 mentees and an equal number of mentors. There were five mentees and three mentors in 2002-03, and 18 mentees and 16 mentors in 2001-02. So far the disabilities the mentees' have been coping with have mostly been dyslexia, wheelchair use, and Asperger's syndrome.

Most applicants to the scheme are accepted, but students go through an interview to both introduce the mentoring scheme to them and assess their suitability for the project. Motivation, enthusiasm, a willingness to commit, and good time management skills are important criteria. Applicants also have to display a general idea of their career direction and potential for achievement, a good understanding of what they could get out of the scheme, and of their own needs. Although students are asked whether having a mentor from outside their chosen subject would be a problem, most see the value of learning from a mentor regardless of their vocational background.

Mentors represent a positive role model for their mentee. Being disabled is not a requirement, although we have had some mentors with dyslexia. We took the view that there are no specific credentials required of a mentor, even though a willingness to learn and experience new things, and being a good communicator, do help. Mentoring is about empowerment, enabling, and facilitating rather than direct training.

Mentor and mentee have at least one meeting a month, and the mentee visits their mentor's workplace. Mentees also get help with CV writing and interview role-plays.

Training for mentors and mentees

To prepare both mentors and mentees for the scheme, a trainer delivers perspectives on disability and mentoring during a half-day training event. Some students reported such training to have aided their self-awareness as they had not considered the social context of disability in such a way before. Mentors regarded their training as extremely useful too, saying that it helped them to acquire new skills they could then apply in other areas of their lives.

After this phase of initiation, the mentor/mentee pairs are given minimal guidance from the project team so that individuals are free to accommodate their own needs and differences. However the project team are always available for ongoing support, offering careers-focused workshops, evaluation, and social events to encourage networking and peer support.

This largely autonomous perspective allows the students to increase their sense of control over their career. Mentees have noted that having a person independent from the university to talk to has improved their overall confidence. Another important benefit students gained was a better comprehension of what the world outside of education is really like and how to establish effective networks.

The mentoring scheme "helps you to face going out into the job market [by] giving you ideas on [different] types of jobs and on how to sell yourself to prospective employers," comments one of the mentees. "The mentors help you to bridge the gap between the protective environment of education and the world of business which can be a very big step for any student without having the additional problems to come to terms with."

Mentors benefit as well

So what's in it for the mentors? It appears that the learning is a two-way process. Employers have commented on how disability has been "demystified" through the process of mentoring, describing how their feelings towards disability were now based on real experiences. Although our scheme does not aim to change attitudes en masse, we are confident that we have influenced those individuals who were willing to challenge their preconceptions on the needs of disabled graduates. Mentors also consistently reported that their mentees had identical concerns to all students; disability issues per se were not the prime focus of their discussions.

Perhaps less expected for the mentors was that the scheme would give them a chance to reflect upon themselves too. Among local employers mentoring is now being recommended to colleagues as a way of growing on a personal level. Ultimately, whether a mentor or mentee, the onus is on individuals to identify their own goals and work towards them constructively. Then the benefits to be reaped are many.

If you are interested in taking part in Interact either as a mentee or as a mentor, or simply would like to know more about the scheme, please contact Jill Allen, Interact scheme manager.