2011. Vol.2, No.2, 121-129
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.22017
Promoting Transition Success for Culturally and Linguistically
Diverse Students with Disabilities: The Value of Mentoring*
David Waldegrave Leake1, Sheryl Burgstahler2, Margo Vreeberg Izzo3
1Center on Disability Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, USA;
2DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Program, University of
Washington, Seattle, USA;
3Nisonger Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, USA.
Email: email@example.com, sherylb@ cac.washington.edu, firstname.lastname@example.org
Received February 24th, 2011; revised April 5th, 2011; accepted April 14th, 2011.
Youth with disabilities are less likely to enroll in and complete postsecondary education programs and transition
to employment than their non-disabled peers, and this is especially so for those from culturally and linguistically
diverse (CLD) backgrounds. To help provide insight into factors influencing the transition process, a multi-site
study was conducted using survey interviews, focus groups, and case studies, with a focus on CLD youth with
disabilities. The importance of mentoring emerged as a consistent theme. Most participants cited informal men-
tors as role models and key motivators for gaining the social, academic, and career supports needed for success.
They identified the relationships of individuals who served as mentors and what they did that helped them gain
fresh perspectives and take steps toward personal, academic, and career goals. The insights gained from the re-
search participants support greater use of men toring to help this popula t i on.
Keywords: Mentoring, Disabilities, Postsecondary Education, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity
Modern society is so complex that youth often need the “ex-
pert help” of knowledgeable adults to develop healthy identities
and successfully transition to adulthood (Hebert, 2001). The
need for such adult support is particularly evident for youth
with disabilities, who face greater difficulties in negotiating the
transition process than their peers without disabilities. In addi-
tion to the various challenges associated with specific disabili-
ties, nearly all youth with disabilities must also contend with
social experiences of stigmatization and discrimination that
may restrict their participation in normative school and com-
munity activities and thereby negatively impact their develop-
ment of healthy identities (Gliedman & Roth, 1980).
Numerous follow-up studies conducted over several decades
confirm that having disabilities is associated with substantially
poorer outcomes, on average, in employment, education, and
community living (Baller, 1936; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996;
Newman, Wagner, Cameto, & Knokey, 2009). The continua-
tion of poor adult life outcomes for people with disabilities is
especially distressing given the fact that over 30 years of legis-
lation and research have focused on improving transition out-
comes. Transition has emerged as a professional field of prac-
tice in special education guided by a set of national standards
and quality indicators (National Alliance for Secondary Educa-
tion and Transition, 2005). The Individuals with Disabilities
Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) defined transition
services as a coordinated set of activities facilitating movement
from secondary school to post-school activities including post-
secondary education, vocational education, integrated employ-
ment, adult services, independent living, or community partici-
pation (IDEA, Section 602). According to this legislation, stu-
dents with disabilities who qualify for special education must
receive transition services that are coordinated through their
Individualized Education Program (IEP), starting by the age of
16 years at the latest (IDEA, Section 614).
A widely shared goal in the field of transition has been to in-
crease the proportion of youth with disabilities who go on to
postsecondary education, whether it be a two-year, four-year, or
vocational-technical institution. Not surprisingly, on average,
individuals with disabilities who complete a postsecondary
program experience significantly better employment and com-
munity living outcomes than those who do not (Flannery, Yo-
vanoff, Benz, & Kato, 2008; Flexer & Baer, 2004; Gajar, 1998).
However, individuals with disabilities attend postsecondary
education at only about half the rate of their peers without dis-
abilities (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Levine, & Garza, 2006).
One at-risk group of particularly high need consists of youth
with disabilities of CLD heritage, who tend to experience sig-
nificantly worse transition outcomes compared to peers who are
White (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Greene & Nefsky, 1999;
Henderson, 1999; US Department of Education, 2002). One
contributing factor is that CLD students with disabilities are
more likely to live in poverty and experience its negative ef-
fects compared to their White counterparts (Donovan & Cross,
2002; Gil-Kashiwabara, Hogansen, Geenen, Powers, & Powers,
2007). In addition, they may be subjected to the “double
whammy” of being discriminated against and experiencing low
*The research reported in this article was funded by the US Department o
Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) (Grant No.
H324C010090). Additional support was provided by OSEP (Grant No.
H327A060066), the Office of Postsecondary Education (Grant No.
P333A050064), and the National Science Foundation (HRD-0833504,
HRD-0929006, and HRD-0833561).
D. W. LEAKE ET AL.
expectations due to membership in two marginalized groups
(having disabilities and being of CLD heritage) (Hollins,
Downer, Farquarson, Oyepeju, & Kopper, 2002).
One approach that has been shown to support at-risk youth
through the transition to adulthood process is that of mentoring
(Sipe, 1999). This article describes research evidence that this
is indeed the case for CLD youth with disabilities who have the
goal of obtaining a degree in higher education.
Mentoring is reported in the research and practice literature
to be a powerful intervention for supporting people in various
academic, employment, and community settings (Kilburg, 2007;
Margolin, 2007; Mazurek-Melnyk, 2007; Rajuan, Beijaard, &
Verloop, 2007) and is often employed in projects funded by
national organizations like the National Science Foundation and
National Institutes of Health (Bhattacharjee, 2007). Although
there has only been limited research on mentoring for youth
with disabilities, it seems reasonable to assume that this popu-
lation stands to benefit from this type of intervention (Sword &
Hill, 2003), as it provides the “personalized attention” that has
been identified as an essential component of successful pro-
grams serving youth with various needs (Dynarski, 2001).
Mentoring is typically described as a relationship between an
experienced, wiser adult and a younger person (sometimes
referred to as the protégé) who may be struggling academically,
behaviorally, or vocationally (Campbell-Whatley, 2001; Camp-
bell-Whatley, Algozzine, & Obiakor, 1997; Hamilton & Ham-
ilton, 1997). Such relationships are meant to foster personal
bonds and provide a safe space for young people to express
their feelings about academic, behavioral, career, and personal
issues. It is hoped that the relationship skills that protégés gain
as a result carry over into their other relationships. Socially
supportive mentoring relationships can meet the individualized
needs of protégés, including but not limited to counseling; role
modeling; job shadowing; personal, academic, and career ad-
vice; and networking (Kram, 1985; Saito & Blyth, 1992; Tem-
plin, Engeman, & Doran, 1999). There is evidence that men-
toring is most effective when mentor and protégé share impor-
tant personal characteristics, such as gender and ethnic/racial
heritage (Campbell & Campbell, 2007).
Wanberg, Kammeyer-Mueller, and Marchese (2006) point
out ways in which formal and informal mentoring scenarios
differ. Mentors and protégés in informal mentoring situations
are typically acquaintances who come to feel a personal bond,
and their relationships may continue for a lifetime (Ragins,
2002). In formal mentoring, mentors are often paired with pro-
tégés on the basis of ethnic, career, or academic similarities,
and their relationships are often specified to last a limited pe-
riod of time and to focus on specific goals to address (e.g., aca-
demic, career, psychosocial) (Kram, 1985; Ragins & Cotton,
1999). Although not as focused, informal mentoring is some-
times more effective than formal mentoring (Chao, Walz, &
Gardner, 1992; Ragins & Cotton, 1999), perhaps because in-
formal mentors are typically self-selected. Unfortunately, in-
formal mentoring opportunities do not always present them-
selves to people who need a mentor.
Mentoring comes in many different forms. The prototypical
mentoring model consists of one-on-one, face-to-face relation-
ships, with mentor-protégé pairs meeting outside of work or
school environments, participating in joint activities, and hav-
ing relevant, supportive discussions. However, mentoring can
also occur in group settings with qualified individuals leading
discussions (Mitchell, 1999), such as a group of African-
American adolescent boys in foster care who meet weekly with
a mental health professional to discuss problems and other is-
sues, particularly those relevant to their specific cultural group
(Utsey, Howard, & Williams, 2003). In such group mentoring
environments, protégés learn not only from their mentors but
also from one another, and have opportunities to mentor each
other by offering advice, encouragement, and information.
Some research suggests that compared to one-on-one models,
group mentoring has the advantage of promoting positive peer
interactions (Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001; Herrera, Vang, &
Gale, 2002; Sipe & Roder, 1999).
Online mentorship programs offer an alternative to face-to-
face meetings and have grown in popularity along with that of
Internet-enabled relationships and social networks. Potential
benefits include lower cost, increased access to people in di-
verse geographical locations, and fewer limitations with respect
to meeting location and schedule, while a weakness of a strictly
virtual mentoring model is that text-based communications can
be inaccurately interpreted due to the lack of social cues
(Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001; Lavin-Colky & Young, 2006).
Virtual mentoring can be particularly helpful for youth with
disabilities who may have difficulty getting to physical meeting
sites on their own. It can also help to bring together those with
low incidence disabilities who tend to be widely dispersed. For
those with various sensory or communication impairments,
computer technologies now exist to enable communication (e.g.,
text readers can voice the contents of emails for those with
visual impairments). A supportive mentoring community can
thus be created for youth with disabilities who, without a virtual
connection, may not otherwise be able to easily participate.
This benefit of e-mentoring for students with disabilities is
evident in the group mentoring model employed by the DO-IT
(Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology)
Center at the Universi ty of Washington in Seattle (Burgstahler,
2007; Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001). Mentoring groups are
comprised of peers, near-peers (individuals a few years older
than the youngest participants), and adult mentors. Young col-
lege students are particularly powerful role models for high
school students who have college enrollment as a goal. In
DO-IT, many participants have opportunities to meet each other
in person, but the online option allows mentors and protégés to
communicate across great distances.
Regardless of its characteristics (e.g., formal or informal, on-
line or on-site, individual or group), mentoring shows promise
for improving the social, academic, and career success of youth
with disabilities, including those of CLD heritage. Little is
known, however, about different cultural perspectives on how
mentoring occurs and on its value to these individuals. Such
information would be useful to families, educators, and pro-
grams aiming to increase the academic and career success of
CLD students with disabilities.
The authors and several other university-based investigators
conducted a multi-method study at five sites across the United
States to identify and examine key factors influencing the transi-
D. W. LEAKE ET AL. 123
tion to postsecondary education of youth with disabilities, with a
focus on those of CLD heritage. This article summarizes the
results of analyzing the subset of data relevant to the issue of
mentoring, with a focus on answering two research questions:
In what contexts and with whom do mentoring relationships
occur for youth with disabilities, especially those of CLD
What is the perceived value of mentoring to youth with dis-
abilities, especially those of CLD heritage?
The research sites were located in the states of Arizona, Ha-
waii, North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington. Each site used the
same research instruments and methods. These methods in-
cluded 1) conducting a telephone interview survey of youth
with disabilities who had exited high school, 2) conducting
multiple focus groups of those who had achieved success in
postsecondary education, and 3) developing in-depth case stu-
dies. The rationale for this design was that the telephone inter-
view survey would begin to identify factors of likely impor-
tance for the target population, and these factors would then be
explored in greater depth through qualitative focus group and
case study approaches.
In order to obtain consumer guidance, each of the five re-
search sites assembled a participatory action research (PAR)
team consisting primarily of CLD individuals with disabilities
who had demonstrated success in postsecondary education. The
PAR teams gave feedback on the design of research activities
and reviewed research instrument drafts, which were revised in
response to their input.
Interview Survey. Primary participation criteria were that
participants had been out of high school between one and five
years and had had an IEP. The goal was for roughly half of the
participants to have attended a postsecondary institution and the
other half to have not attended, so that key factors differentia-
ting these two groups might be revealed. Identifying and re-
cruiting young adults with disabilities turned out to be difficult,
despite offering compensation of $25. The researchers used
their established relationships with local disability service
agencies and support organizations to locate and recruit indi-
viduals with no postsecondary education experience. However,
they found it was easier to reach individuals attending college
thanks to help from on-campus offices for disability support
services. As a result, of the 198 survey participants, 152 (76.8%)
had college experience and 46 (23.2%) did not. There were 92
females (46.5%) and 106 males (53.5%). Their racial/ethnic
self-ascriptions were 28 American Indian (14.1%), 17 Asian
(8.6%), 55 Black (27.8%), 14 Hispanic (7.1%), 12 Pacific Is-
lander (6.1%), 50 White (25.3%), and 22 other or multiethnic
Focus Groups. The next research phase involved convening
a total of 12 focus groups consisting of a total of 60 young
adults with college experience, most identified and recruited
from among those in the telephone survey, although some sites
had to conduct additional recruiting. Participants included 35
(58.3%) females and 25 (41.7%) males. Regarding primary
disability, participants included 23 (38.3%) with learning dis-
abilities or dyslexia, 10 (16.7%) with attention deficit disorder
(with or without hyperactivity), 7 (11.7%) with visual impair-
ments, 5 (8.3%) with traumatic brain injury, 3 (5.0%) with mo-
bility impairments, 2 (3.3%) with hearing impairments, 2 (3.3%)
with developmental disabilities, and 2 (3.3%) with serious
emotional disturbances. The remaining 6 (10.0%) were either
the only ones with their particular primary disability or their
disabilities were unknown.
Case Studies. In the third research phase, each of the sites
conducted in-depth case studies of 11 participants whose stories
seemed to illustrate how young CLD adults with disabilities can
be effectively supported to succeed in postsecondary education.
In contrast to the first two phases, White participants were not
included, based on the assumption that while useful CLD ver-
sus non-CLD cultural contrasts would emerge from compare-
sons of both the interview survey and focus group results, there
would not be enough case study participants for meaningful
comparisons. The racial/ethnic self-ascriptions and locations of
the case study participants are shown in Table 1.
Each of the three research methods was conducted using dif-
ferent instrumentation. Instruments were designed to address
topics identified through a literature review (summarized in
Leake et al., 2006) as highly relevant to successful transitions to
adulthood, including the participants’ family backgrounds, their
disabilities, the services and supports they received in high
school, their use of assistive technology, their friendships, and
their educational and vocational experiences since leaving high
Interview Survey. The survey questionnaire consisted of 62
items, most of which were adapted from instruments used in
previous transition follow-along research (Izzo, Sharpe, &
Murray, 2002; James & Leake, 1994) and the California Work-
ability I Follow-up Survey of special education school leavers.
Research sites and numbers of research participants.
Site # Phone Survey
Participants # Focus Group
Participants # Case Study
Carolina 17 Round 1
5 Round 2 12 Black (2 groups) 2 Black
Arizona 37 Round 1
17 Round 2 6 American Indian
6 Hispanic 2 American
Ohio 62 Round 1
30 Round 2 8 Black (+1 Asian)
4 White 2 Black
Hawaii 70 Round 1a
25 Round 2
3 Native Hawaiian
Washington 12 Round 1
1 Round 2 4 Asian
4 Hispanic 1 Hispanic
TOTAL 198 Round 1
78 Round 2 60 (12 groups) 11
a. Includes 33 participants in Arizona, California, Michigan, and Texas; b. Resi-
dent of Colorado.
D. W. LEAKE ET AL.
The instrument was revised three times based on field testing
and the recommendations of the five PAR teams. One of the
survey items addressed the issue of mentoring: “Did you have a
mentor during high school? Someone who supported you and
gave you advice?” Participants who responded positively were
then asked to describe who their mentors were and how their
mentors had supported them.
Focus Groups. Focus group discussions were guided by a
standard set of 22 probe questions, with three subsets of ques-
tions addressing family and social factors, high school experi-
ences, and postsecondary education experiences (see Table 2).
One of the questions in the family and social factors subset
concerned mentors: “How much of your success in postsecond-
ary education do you think is due to the influence of adult
mentors or role models (relatives, teachers, etc.) during your
teen years and since? Who were they and how did they help
you?” An additional mentor question was included in the ques-
tions on postsecondary education experiences: “Are there pro-
fessors/instructors, other students, or anyone else you look up
to as role models or mentors? Who are they and how do they
Case Studies. The case study guidelines listed 19 issues to
explore with each participant, including an issue directly rele-
vant to mentoring: “Who were key people who supported you
to attend postsecondary education? In what specific ways did
these key people provide supports?”
Procedures and Analys i s
Interview Survey. Researchers scheduled interviews with
prospective participants who submitted signed informed con-
sent forms. The interviews typically lasted 40 minutes and were
generally conducted via telephone, although one site conducted
face-to-face interviews with American Indian participants as
recommended by its PAR team. Interview responses were ana-
lyzed using SPSS software, primarily using descriptive statis-
tics and the general linear model (GLM).
Focus Groups. Focus groups were formed of individuals of
similar ethnic/racial heritage, based on the assumptions that: 1)
consistent cultural themes might be more likely to emerge in
discussions among individuals from similar cultural back-
grounds, and 2) participants might feel more relaxed and self-
revelatory in the presence of others who shared their heritage.
The three domains covered by the standard probe questions
were addressed either in separate sessions lasting around two
hours, or in a single all-day session. The focus group sessions
were recorded and transcribed, and the transcripts were ana-
lyzed using Atlas.ti, a qualitative data analysis software pro-
gram. Atlas.ti allows sections of text to be coded as to the
theme or topic of discussion, and all text segments with a par-
ticular code or codes can then be extracted for comparison. A
total of 128 transcript segments were coded as concerning
mentors or role models.
Case Studies. The case studies were designed to gather in-
formation from multiple sources about how the participants
achieved postsecondary education success. Interviews were
conducted not only with the participants, but also with other
people they identified as having played key roles. For most
participants, these people included parents, other relatives, and
teachers. Analysis involved examining the interview tran-
scripts to distill answers to the questions posed in the case study
Focus group probe questions (qu e s t i ons about mentors in bold italics).
First Focu s Group Session: Family Supports
Who in your family has normally made the decisions about your
What did your family think you should do after high school? Did
they encourage and support you to go on to postsecondary educa-
Is family involvement in homework and school activities during
high school critical to a successful postsecondary education?
Is family involvement during postsecondary education (choosing
classes, he lpi ng with transpor tation, etc.) important for student suc-
Are youth whose parents had a postsecondary education more
likely to have postsecondary education as a goal than those whose
parents did not?
How much of your success in postsecondary education do you
think is due to the influence of adult mentors or role models (rel-
atives, teachers, etc.) during your teen years and since? Who
were they and how did the y help you?
Do you consider your family to be in the lower, middle, or upper
Second Focus Group Session: High School Experiences
Did you like going to high school ? Why or why not?
How would you rate the quality of your high school (teachers,
Reflecting on your experiences in high school: What made you
feel most valued? What made you feel least valued? Please de-
scribe specific situations to illustrate.
What were your teachers’ ex pectations of you during hi gh school?
Did they encourage y ou t o attend a po stseconda r y institution?
Were you involved in developing your own Individualized Educa-
tion Plan (IEP) and Individualized Transition Plan (ITP)? Were
these plans designed to help you go on to postsecondary educa-
What were the main interests of you and your friends in high
school? What did you usually do together? What did they do after
leaving high school?
What were the main ethnic/racial groups in your high school?
Which groups did your fri ends belong to?
Third Focus Group Session: Postsecondary Experiences
Did you consider the services and supports available for students
with disabilities in choosing a postsecondary insti tution?
Do you feel accepted as an equal on campus, like you “belong”?
Do you ever feel like you are viewed or treated negatively on
campus? If so, do you thin k it is related to yo ur disability, o r your
CLD status, or both, or neither? Ple ase explain.
Are there professors/instructors, other students, or anyone else
you look up to as role models or mentors? Who are they and how
do they help you?
Have you identified yourself as a student with disabilities? Why or
Are there services or supports that you think you need but aren’t
getting? Why not? What have you done to solve this problem?
What are your education and career goals? How will you judge if
you are successful or no t in life in general?
Is the cost of postsecondary education a problem for you? If it is a
problem, how are you dealing with i t?
Did your ability to pay for postsecondary education affect your
choice of institution? How?
Telephone Interview Survey
Table 3 summarizes responses to the survey question, “Did
D. W. LEAKE ET AL. 125
Interview survey answers to: “Did you have a mentor during high
school? Someone who supported you and gave you advice?”
Subgroup Yes No Don’t Know TOTAL
American Indian 18 (66.7%) 9 (33.3%) 0 (0%) 27 (100%)
Asian 11 (84.6%) 1 (9.1%) 1 (9.1%) 13 (100%)
Black 29 (52.7%) 17 (30.9%) 9 (16.4%) 55 (100% )
Hispanic 9 (69.2%) 3 (23.1%) 1 (7.7%) 13 (100%)
Pacific Islander 5 (50.0%) 5 (50.0%) 0 (0%) 10 (100%)
White 26 (52.0%) 18 (36.0%) 6 (12.0%) 50 (100%)
Multiethnic/Other 21 (70.0%) 8 (26.7%) 1 (3.3%) 30 (100%)
TOTAL 119 (60.1%) 61 (30.8%) 18 (9.1%) 198 (100%)
In College 83 (56.8%) 46 (31.5%) 17 (11.6%) 146 (100%)
Not in College 36 (69.2%) 15 (28.8%) 1 (2.0%) 52 (100%)
you have a mentor during high school? Someone who sup-
ported you and gave you advice?” There was variability across
the ethnic/racial subgroups (from a 50.0% “yes” response rate
for Pacific Islanders to 84.6% for Asians) which appears
attributable to the relatively low numbers of respondents in
each subgroup. Across the subgroups, the “yes” response rate
was approximately 60% and the “no” response rate was
approximately 31% (with about 9% responding “don’t know”).
An interesting finding was that 69.2% of the 52 interviewees
not in college reported having a mentor during high school
compared to only 56.8% of the 146 who attended college.
However, this difference is not statistically significant (when
the “don’t know” responses are excluded, a 2*2 comparison
using Fisher’s exact test (two-tailed) returns a P value of
0.4868). The relatively low rate of mentorship during high
school reported by those who attended college raises questions
about how they negotiated barriers—did they manage on their
own or were they significantly supported by parents or other
family members? The intent of the question was to identify
mentors from outside the immediate family, and this seems to
be how the question was generally understood since only
14.9% of interviewees who reported kind of mentor responded
The focus group transcripts indicated that 55 out of 60 par-
ticipants were recorded discussing their experiences of being
mentored, with only one of the 55 stating they had had no
mentors in either high school or college. In analyzing the rele-
vant focus group transcript segments, three themes emerged
regarding mentorship, as described below.
Who Do Youth View as Mentors? The focus group tran-
scripts were examined to identify the people described by the
participants as their mentors. Many participants described hav-
ing multiple mentors. Of the 54 focus group participants who
recalled being mentored, 30 (55.6%) specified parents or other
close relatives, 20 (37.0%) teachers, 8 (14.8%) school counse-
lors, 6 (11.1%) friends or peers, 4 (7.4%) other high school
personnel, 4 (7.4%) college disability support services person-
nel, and 3 (5.6%) a romantic partner. Other individuals men-
tioned included therapist, work supervisor, and neighbor.
Research indicates that mentoring relationships may be
stronger and more effective when mentors and protégés share
the same ethnic/racial identity and/or disability status (Camp-
bell & Campbell, 2007). Some support for this idea was found
in the focus group transcripts, although it was not specifically
addressed by the probe questions. For example, an American
Indian female with a visual impairment said:
…for me it’s a [professor] but at the same time he’s Native
American, he’s [name of tribe], so he really relates to me a lot,
he’s pretty cool. He’s already asking me, “How many more
years ‘til you graduate?” and “We’re gonna find a good uni-
versity for you,” and he’s always trying to get me involved in a
lot of programs and um he wants me to get an internship.
An example of the possible importance of sharing disability
status was provided by an Asian female who is deaf, who re-
counted that in high school:
The deaf and hard of hearing coordinator was deaf, so she
was responsible for my IEP, I guess, whatever. So, because she
was deaf I looked up to her and she’s the one who encouraged
me to go to college and sort of pushed me to do well in classes
and also to go to college as well.
What Do Mentors Do? Analysis of the focus group tran-
scripts reveals that the most-often described ways that mentors
help are (in descending order of frequency): encouraging and
motivating; serving as examples of success (e.g., succeeding in
college despite disability-related barriers); providing emotional
support when things are not going well; discussing or guiding
plans for the future; providing educational support (e.g., help-
ing with homework); helping to negotiate service systems; and
treating people with disabilities just like other people.
Do You Serve As a Mentor or Role Model to Others? A
number of focus group participants expressed commitment to
serving as mentors or role models for others who may face
barriers related to disability or CLD status. Some explained that
this commitment contributed to their motivation to succeed in
college. For example, a Hispanic male with paraplegia ex-
plained that, “I decided to motivate myself [to go to college]
because I want to be a role model for all those people” who
might let their disabilities keep them out. And a Black female
with learning disabilities said:
You read the history of African Americans and people who
died to have the right to vote, or the right to walk into a grocery
store or restaurant. That has encouraged me to keep moving in
times where you feel like you can’t do this paper. But you have
people looking at you. So I want little girls at my elementary
school to say that they want to be like [me] and go to college.
A Hispanic female who has multiple orthopedic disabilities
My base influence for why I am continuing my education is
my little brother. Because boys are more likely not to go to
college and he could do way more for himself. So that’s why I
try to continue my education and show him that even though I
have some barriers, that I can do it and so it’s more easier for
him to do it.
All 11 of the case study participants reported that mentors
D. W. LEAKE ET AL.
played significant supportive roles in their college journeys.
Several of the participants specifically stated that they would
not have attended college without such support. In view of the
depth and breadth of the case study data, it is worth summarize-
ing how each participant benefited from mentoring.
An American Indian female with a visual impairment iden-
tified a professor as a key mentor who recognized her aca-
demic potential and took her under his wing, encouraging
and supporting her to do things she would not otherwise
have considered, including doing a summer internship in
another state and preparing to attend graduate school.
An American Indian male with a learning disability grew up
on a reservation and probably would not have considered
going to college but for the fact he began receiving athletic
scholarship offers while just a sophomore in high school.
As a result of his outgoing personality and strong self-ad-
vocacy skills, he developed mentoring relationships with
numerous people, including his high school and college
athletic coaches. Guidance from an older brother and an-
other athlete from the same high school who went to col-
lege ahead of him was also important.
A Black male with a traumatic brain injury was a star ath-
lete and acknowledged leader in high school but, after his
accident during senior year, he had to adjust to having to
depend on other people to help deal with his new cognitive
limitations. Key mentors have included his mother and an
older friend who completed college.
A Black female with a hearing impairment attributes her
perseverance through academic and financial difficulties to
the support of her parents, especially her mother. She has
also benefited from the advice and support of her sister, two
work supervisors, and members of her sorority.
A Black female who is legally blind was supported through-
out her K-12 school years by her parents and numerous
other family members. An older male cousin served as a
role model and mentor with regard to attending college, and
her grandmother mentors her at the hospital where they
A Black female who is legally blind identified an older
woman who is also visually impaired as a key influence:
It really made a tremendous difference being able to talk
to [her] about practically anything and knowing she had
first-hand knowledge and superior advice. I don’t mean to
say that mentors are infallible people because they’re not.
They just help students to see that any hard time they find
themselves in won’t last forever.
A Hispanic female with a severe orthopedic condition was
supported by her parents and K-12 teachers, who recog-
nized and fostered her academic potential and drive to suc-
ceed. Her most significant mentor in college was her older
sister, who attended the same institution.
A Hispanic female with learning disabilities began college
after her children had grown up with the aim of building on
her experience as a paraeducator to obtain a teaching cer-
tificate. One inspiration was her younger brother, who has a
master’s degree, and she was supported by several profess-
sionals who helped her to understand and effectively man-
age her learning d isabilities .
An Asian (Japanese) male with cerebral palsy has always
been encouraged by his family to go as far as possible aca-
demically, in line with their high cultural valuation of edu-
cation. A number of fellow students helped him through the
seven years it took him to earn his bachelor’s degree, after
which he entered graduate school in pursuit of a master’s
degree. One of his professors in particular was instrumental,
helping him negotiate the vocational rehabilitation bu-
reaucracy to obtain a voice synthesizer and also involving
him in initiatives to support other people with disabilities
through assistive and multimedia technologies.
Two Pacific Islander females who are deaf share much the
same story. They were befriended by special education
consultants visiting their high school on a remote Pacific
island. The consultants recognized their academic potential
and arranged for them to attend a community college with a
strong deaf program in the United States where they learned
American Sign Language. Numerous mentors supported
their college and independent living progress, including an
older couple who are also deaf with whom they initially
stayed, personnel within the community college deaf pro-
gram, an employer who knows sign language, and other
young adults in the local deaf community with whom they
In turn, all of the case study participants expressed the desire
to serve as mentors or role models for others with disabilities,
and many expressed career goals in this vein. For example, the
Black male with traumatic brain injury said he wants to be a
motivational speaker to inspire others facing similar barriers,
and both Pacific Island females who are deaf said they want to
return to their home island to introduce American Sign Lan-
Although about 40% of young adults with disabilities who
took part in the standardized interview said they either did not
have a mentor during high school or could not remember, near-
ly all focus group participants and all case study participants
did describe having mentors. A reasonable explanation of this
difference in reported rates of mentorship may be that the con-
versational and more in-depth nature of the focus groups and
case studies may have elicited more positive answers by clari-
fying what was meant by mentoring and encouraging reflection.
There has been very little research to date on mentoring to
promote postsecondary education success for students with
disabilities, and virtually no research specifically focused on
those of CLD heritage. The results of our focus group and case
study phases provide preliminary evidence of the potential im-
portance of mentoring for this population. By looking up to
others who have succeeded—teachers, family members, parents,
formal mentors, near-peers—these youth are better able to en-
vision their own success and work toward their goals. Those
most often cited as mentors by the research participants are
individuals with whom they have most often been in routine
contact—teachers, family members, and friends. These indi-
viduals should keep in mind the role for which they have been
Notably, very few of the focus group members, and none of
the case study participants, described having been involved in
formal mentoring relationships. This result raises the possibility
that poor transition outcomes for many youth with disabilities
D. W. LEAKE ET AL. 127
may be partly related to the lack of informal mentors and role
models among those with whom they routinely associate—a
situation that is more likely to occur in impoverished communi-
ties, where CLD groups tend to comprise a higher proportion of
the populace. The implementation of a formal mentoring pro-
gram can help fill this gap. Administrators, faculty members,
and teachers who direct, or desire to direct, intentional mentor-
ing programs should keep in mind the social, academic, and
career supports that CLD youth with disabilities report as in-
strumental in their successful transition to college and careers.
As mentors build their relationships with their protégés they
can provide the motivation to persist through challenging cir-
cumstances; the cultural connections to feel they are valued
members of their groups; and other natural supports such as
facilitating entrée to clubs and associations, modeling social
skills, or promoting friendships with others. Mentors can en-
courage protégés to use academic supports such as high school
to college bridge programs, college visits, classroom accom-
modations, and study supports. Career supports that mentors
can provide include access to career education programs or
work-based learning such as job shadowing, job tryouts, and
internships, as well as access to social networks knowledgeable
of job opportunities.
The results of this study indicate that those in both informal
and formal mentoring roles can be effective in encouraging
their protégés to take critical steps toward successful transitions
to higher academic levels and careers. Administrators, educa-
tors, and counselors at both the secondary and postsecondary
levels should encourage their colleagues to engage in and fa-
cilitate both formal and informal mentoring of CLD youth with
disabilities. Table 4 outlines many of the social, academic, and
career supports that can come from both informal and formal
mentors. Having an experienced adult or near-peer role model
who has the experience to recommend the use of classroom
accommodations such as assistive technology or extended time
on tests may increase achievement and success in academic
settings. Formal mentoring programs can help mentors learn to
provide culturally sensitive supports and self-determination
activities such as explaining how assistive technology and other
accommodations improved their own performance. Educators
can build these informal mentoring opportunities through
cross-age tutoring programs, community service opportunities,
and specific classroom assignments that require students to
“pay it forward” by mentoring younger students.
With regard to promoting the use of informal mentoring, it is
interesting to note that mentoring is typically one of the benefi-
cial outcomes of natural supports (Westerlund, Granucci, Ga-
mache, & Clark, 2006). Natural supports emerge from the so-
cial relationships that people develop in their various life do-
mains, but disabilities often create barriers to developing and
maintaining relationships (Nisbet, 1992). Practices that support
people with disabilities to expand their social networks—such
as person-centered planning that creates “circles of friends” or
“circles of support” (Mount, 1997)—can therefore increase and
enhance the mentoring they receive.
Cultural sensitivity should be incorporated into both mentor
and protégé training activities so mentors are aware of cultural
norms that, if ignored, might invalidate the mentoring relation-
ship. For example, CLD youth may be more oriented to the
traditional collectivistic values of their ethnic/racial group than
Examples of social, academic, and career supports provided
by family members, school personnel, work colleagues, peers,
and other mentors.
Endorse self-determined choices
Inspire to persevere
Positive role model
Introduc e to others of similar heritage
Inform of cultural eve nts
Help understand cultural heritage/values
Facilitat e entrée to clubs, etc.
Model social s kills
Counsel on relation sh ip proble ms
College classes while i n h igh school
Summer academic preparation
Culturally Sensitive Self-determination
Self-determined college visits
Self-determined course of study
Discussion s w i t h f aculty
Assistive t echnolog y
Extended time on tests
Curriculum-based career education
Culturally Sensitive Self-determination
Self-determined career goal
Self-advocacy for accommodations
Job Seeking Netwo r k
Inform of job openin gs
Introduce to employers
the individualistic values typically held within American main-
stream culture (Leake & Black, 2005; Luft, 2008). However,
given the wide variations in acculturation to American main-
stream values, it is not possible to determine a particular
youth’s orientation based on ethnic/racial status alone. Rather,
each youth should be approached as an individual, with
open-minded acceptance and understanding of his or her values,
strengths, and needs as the basis for developing supportive
mentoring relationships (Harry, Kalyanpur, & Day, 1999). De-
pending on the individual, one goal might be to support deve-
lopment of the attitudes and skills needed to be bicultural, that
is, comfortable and capable in both the home culture and the
D. W. LEAKE ET AL.
American mainstream culture that is predominant in postse-
condary education and workplace settings (Valenzuela & Mar-
Limitations and Future Research
The information obtained on mentoring through the inter-
view survey tended to lack depth because time constraints pre-
cluded follow-up questions to gain more information or ensure
that interviewees understood the mentoring concept. Further-
more, although all major ethnic/racial groups in the United
States were represented, the numbers of participants were too
small to support strong statistical comparisons between groups,
and it was not possible to identify clear cultural differences
with regard to mentoring. The qualitative focus groups and case
studies did yield more in-depth data concerning mentoring. A
limitation of the focus group data is that close to half of the
participants only attended one or two out of the three sessions,
so their full perspectives on mentoring may have been missed.
There were only 11 case study participants, which is too few to
assert generalizability of the results. On the other hand, the
prominent roles that informal mentors played in the college
careers of all of the case study participants confirms the poten-
tial importance of this practice.
It is also likely that the overall sample lacks representative-
ness. As with most research on people with disabilities, and
marginalized populations in general, it proved difficult to re-
cruit participants except through offices or agencies providing
services. Youth with disabilities who do not use these services
were therefore unlikely to hear of the study. In addition, there
was a self-selection process for those who volunteered to par-
ticipate. The relatively small monetary compensation may have
been an incentive for some, but many told the researchers they
were glad for the opportunity to tell their stories. In this regard,
it is possible that one motivation of some participants was to
contribute to research that might help others with disabilities.
Given the potential utility of mentoring, future research
should pose more in-depth, focused questions about the mentor
relationship. It would be particularly useful to explore how
informal mentoring tends to occur in different cultures, and
how formal mentoring can be structured to best meet the needs
and values of youth with disabilities from different cultures.
Mentors can provide critical supports to CLD youth with
disabilities during their transition from high school to college
and careers. Through 119 survey interviews, 12 focus groups of
60 participants, and 11 case studies, the majority of the partici-
pants across six unique ethnic/racial groups described how
mentors encouraged them to set their goals high and provided
social, academic, and career supports. Few of the participants
reported they had been in formal mentoring programs, but most
reported benefiting from informal mentoring relationships with
a range of people from their communities. Many of the partici-
pants attributed their success, at least in part, to the encourage-
ment their mentors provided during high school. It is recom-
mended that more formal mentoring programs be established to
provide CLD youth with disabilities, especially those who live
in remote or impoverished communities, the encouragement
and assistance they need to successfully transition to college
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