Ashley: Career development with the help of a mentor

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Background

Ashley works part-time as part of the research team at the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has worked there since 2008. Ashley heard about the ICI through the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, and applied for an open position. After looking at her resume, a project team member interviewed Ashley and thought she was "outgoing and outspoken." This team member hired Ashley because she was highly motivated and conveyed a strong work ethic, and then became her mentor (a person who helps her grow at her job).

Ashley describes her job as being personally gratifying and says that it has increased her self-confidence. She enjoyed success with her first project, which involved research about how people with disabilities make decisions about work. She has also had a positive mentoring experience. This has allowed Ashley to progress in her job, take on new projects and responsibilities, and expand her role within the ICI.

What's important

During Ashley's first project, she took on many tasks. Her training and experience as a self-advocate were important here. A self-advocate is someone with a disability who works to achieve their goals, and helps other people with disabilities do the same.

Ashley made sure that the consent forms were clear and accessible. Consent forms are information sheets that help people participating in research projects to understand what will happen. She also helped to interview people with intellectual and developmental disabilities about how they made decisions about their jobs. Ashley brought many skills to the project, but she also learned new skills along the way with the help of her mentor and other team members. She learned about all aspects of a research project, including how to sort and analyze research data and write reports about the project's findings.

Ashley's relationship with her mentor, Jean, was important in her career development. Ashley and Jean met weekly. During meetings, they talked about how Ashley could accomplish her tasks, such as working with the information she heard during interviews. They also identified any training or support Ashley would need to do her job well.

Ashley and Jean worked together to help Ashley be an effective team member. Jean helped make sure that Ashley felt comfortable speaking in team meetings and working individually with everyone on their team. Ashley and Jean spent time before each team meeting going over the agenda and each discussion topic. Then, the team followed the agenda closely during the meetings, allowing each team member to express their thoughts about the agenda item before going on to the next one. Ashley's team members encouraged her to ask questions when she did not understand something.

Ashley's co-workers said that she brought a lot of good ideas to the project. Her questions made the team think about and explain exactly how they did their work, such as why they were asking individuals with disabilities certain questions, or how they developed ideas about the interview data. Her suggestions throughout the project made the research more understandable to people with intellectual disabilities. In addition, her shared experience of having an intellectual disability made the participants feel comfortable. Her project tasks showed her strengths. Ashley was able to form powerful relationships that made individuals with disabilities want to tell her their stories.

What happened

Over time, Ashley developed a bigger role at the ICI. At first, most of Ashley's work with her mentor and other team members was over the phone. During her work on the first project, Ashley moved from doing her project work at home to having an office at the ICI. This change helped her meet more people and become more comfortable at the office. It also helped Ashley feel like she was part of "something bigger."

Through more time in the office, and as word spread about how valuable Ashley was, she gained the trust and respect of other ICI staff members. As the first project ended, Ashley let Jean and other team members know that she was interested in more work. Because Jean had worked with Ashley for two years, she understood her strengths and areas where she would need extra support. This was important in helping to find more work within the ICI that was a good fit. Also, Ashley's team had invested a lot of time in helping Ashley grow, and they wanted to support her to expand her role.

Ashley, Jean, and other team members spoke with several colleagues about projects that might be a good fit for her skills. She was soon offered work on a project training youth about opportunities to work in the community. Additionally, she has been an on-camera interviewer for some of the ICI's video success stories, has helped to write three articles for different audiences (and is working on another!), and is now working on a project with Connecticut's Department of Developmental Services. On her new project, Ashley works on "Success Stories" and interviews people with disabilities about their jobs. She also helps this team make the whole research process more accessible.

Lessons learned

  • Help people apply their talents. Ashley applied her experience as a person with a disability and a self-advocate to her research role, adding a valuable perspective to the ICI's work.
  • Find a mentor for each new employee. Mentoring has helped Ashley in her career path and made her more comfortable and confident at work. Knowing that someone "has her back" allows her to try new things and develop new skills. A mentor should be open to learning through trial and error, understand that each person has unique support needs, focus on growth and development, and respect the knowledge and experience the newer employee brings to the relationship.
  • Make a clear plan. Ashley's team learned to define meeting agendas in advance and to follow the agenda more closely. Ashley's mentor met with her before each team meeting to prepare. This structure has helped Ashley to work more efficiently on the team.

For more information, please contact:

Ashley Wolfe
ashley.wolfe@umb.edu

Allison Hall
allison.hall@umb.edu