Rocket Fuel for Youth

GUEST COLUMN | by David Neils

Authentic student work is ‘rocket fuel’ for our younger generations, says an innovative academic mentoring program’s director. 

It’s humbling and inspiring to see what happens when teachers and mentors work together to encourage, support, and challenge youth. After witnessing the results of over 45,000 students being served by our mentoring program since 1995, patterns have emerged that are worth sharing. These patterns have been substantiated within and outside the program. One pattern that is as obvious as the law of gravity is the value of authentic student work.

What is authentic student work? It’s an environment where students are:

-tackling real issues

-where the bar of quality is set high and set collectively by professionals, teachers, and students

-where students go through an iterative cycle with every outcome throughout the project (draft, refinement, new draft)

-where professionals in that issue space are as interested in the process and what’s discovered as are the students,

-where students have an authentic audience for their work, and finally

-where the results of this collaborative work have a real impact that lasts for months or years.

Authentic student work changes lives. We are all hard wired to derive joy and satisfaction from contributing in a positive, powerful way. When we know we’re making a real difference, it not only lightens our step—but changes our perspective about people and what’s happening around us.

Back in 1993, I was interviewing high school students for scholarships in Walden, a small rural town in Northern Colorado, and noticed that many of these students were way ahead of their urban peers in maturity, self knowledge about interests and abilities, and their ability to communicate with adults. As I reviewed their applications, I noticed most of the students were involved in one or more of the following programs: scouts, 4-H, and church youth groups. The strongest students were involved in at least two of these programs. As I reflected on why these programs made such a difference, I was drawn to the fact that these environments were places where youth were contributing, making a difference, collaborating with healthy adults who care about youth—and where the contributions had a lasting impact.

As another example of authentic learning, a high school student in our program from Northwest Louisiana tackled an authentic project where he was the focus of the experiment. He wondered whether he could control his insulin level better giving himself shots versus using an insulin pump. This was an issue that affected many diabetic individuals in his community and around the world. His mentor from Merck helped him connect with local diabetic professionals as well as the LSU medical research team. These professionals had a keen interest in his findings. His work was of exceptional quality because the bar of quality was set at the beginning of the project collectively with input from him, his teacher, the mentor, and local professionals.

We are seeing the value of authentic work on a daily basis as student develop and leverage relationships near and far to articulate their interests and pursue their ambitions. As we look at each student in the program as an individual with a panoply of strengths, weaknesses, aptitudes, and interests—we can’t help but marvel at the complexity of human beings and the infinite variables that come to play in any person’s life “pathway.” In the midst of this complexity lies incredible potential energy that, when set in motion, is astonishing.

In recent years, I have have been most amazed to see how mentors living thousands of miles away from our schools can encourage students to take important actions within their local communities.

Sometimes the catalyst is a student who just needs an opportunity to think big, getting a chance to network with big thinkers—and sometimes it’s a matter of a student needing a mentor to help her communicate those big thoughts to the people who live right down the street or just across the river from her.

Two years ago, Nicole ran away from home and dropped out of high school for over a year. She returned to school with a passion for helping kids, like her now one year old who nearly outweighed her. With the help of a telementor and support from a teacher and her parents, she began to fashion a career and education plan that would allow her to graduate from high school and pursue certification for childcare work at the post-secondary level. With a plan and network of support behind her, she found an internship at a local church daycare willing to help her launch her career.

Last school year, Jasmine impressed us with her natural ability to work with celebrities and promote their work through social media. She leveraged a scholarship to a summer leadership workshop to showcase her gifts and develop more practical experience at project management. Last fall, she collaborated with a telementor to develop a career and education plan that she then presented to Millennium Studios who immediately made her the first intern of any kind, high school, college, or graduate level, to work for them. Last week I got to hear her boss talk about how Jasmine had opened up opportunities for talented students who will come after her. That was a powerful experience!

Sam, from the first time I met him in middle school, has impressed me with his ambitions. Not many seventh graders can let teachers know that their passion is linguistics, especially psycho-linguistics. As a freshman in high school, he took courses at the local college in sociology and psychology, and was not afraid of the challenges. He wanted more challenges, in fact! It was no surprise then, when he worked most effectively with one of most talented telementors in the program. Together, they connected Sam’s intelligence and passion for learning to a community of learners that included national and international experts.  In fact, when they managed to correspond with Noam Chomsky, one of the most prolific linguists, political activists, and radical intellectuals of the 20th century, I let Brian and Sam know that they had set a new standard for networking in the program.

We work with all students, including gifted and talented students and students with disabilities and talented students with disabilities—and gifts we just don’t know about yet! I am very fortunate to get to see each day that mentors and relationships are catalysts for student action or that student actions can be the catalysts for the formation of new relationships and mentor/protege relationships. Some days, a mentor in California helps an autistic student in Louisiana with a passion for the logical systems that run computers—to develop a career and education plan. Other days, it’s a shy student in Louisiana taking a plan he made with his mentor from Pennsylvania to share with the hiring manager of a local grocery store.

It is quite humbling to watch student aspirations and ambitions move forward in great leaps or grow in even small increments, sometimes after years of inaction or paralysis or dysfunction, or simple unrealized potential. I am grateful for every opportunity that we have had to link students with adults who have faith that the next generation of adults will be substantially better than the current one!

Authentic student work is project-based learning on steroids. It’s all the right stuff—without the fluff. It ensures students are really making a difference. When I ask students in our program what determines the amount of energy they put into work at school, the answer is, “Is it real, or is it fake? If it’s real,” they tell me, “then I’ll put in real effort. And if it’s fake, I’ll put in just enough effort to get by.”

By helping teachers take the curriculum requirements and turn them into authentic student opportunities, the students will be able to apply the concepts real time, and develop skills that are impossible to develop any other way.

I invite you to share in the results of our students and mentors at as well as our news site: We have incredible mentor professionals from 22 countries who have years of experience. They created matches with students again today for a summer project in Topeka, Kansas, where students will receive career and education research and planning support that leverages their unique interests and natural abilities. Mentors chose students at the rate of one every three minutes. If we can help serve youth in your community, please send an e-mail to or call 970-481-9795.


David Neils is the founder and director of the International Telementor Program, an academic mentoring program helping students become informed, connected and engaged in authentic learning. Write to:


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