Impact Feature Issue on Supporting New Career Paths for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

A New Generation of Career Mentoring for Young Adults with Disabilities:

Among American youth, those with disabilities have the highest unemployment rates, lowest rates of participation in postsecondary training and education, and highest likelihood of remaining dependent on public assistance programs after high school. The E-Connect e-mentoring program, developed at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration (ICI), is working to change these outcomes.

E-Connect combines technology and the time-tested practice of mentoring in a program that pairs high school students with disabilities with volunteer mentors from the local business community. It utilizes e-mail and school-supervised face-to-face meetings between mentors and mentees to offer students the opportunity to learn about skills necessary for employment and be exposed to career options and fields that may be unfamiliar to them. The program is school-based. Each week over the course of a semester, mentors spend a short period of time corresponding with students via e-mail. Teachers guide and monitor the process, integrating the mentoring experience into class activities, including career exploration and awareness. Teachers post weekly questions about work and careers provided by the E-Connect curriculum, and the mentors and students discuss them via e-mail. Students and mentors can also discuss other topics in their e-mails, such as areas of common interest. Twice each semester mentors and mentees meet face-to-face at structured, school-sponsored visits, one at the business and one at the school.

E-Connect was launched by ICI in 2007, with implementation funded by Pathways to Employment, a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, and Minnesota State Council on Disability. It has been implemented in 28 Minnesota schools with over 350 students and mentors from over 85 businesses. Participating businesses represent a variety of fields, including healthcare, manufacturing, information technology, the automotive industry, banking, and retail sales. They have included Medtronic, Mayo Clinic, Cummins Manufacturing, Navy Island, Inc., Allete-Minnesota Power Company, Tapemark Corporation, and U.S. Bank.

Stories about how E-Connect benefits participating students and mentors abound. In the remainder of this article are two such stories.

E-Connect at Medtronic

In her fourth year as an E-Connect mentor, Jennifer Johnson, a Human Resources Consultant at Medtronic in Minneapolis, sees a strong value for business in the e-mentoring program and finds it personally rewarding. “Knowing that in a very short period of time I can help set someone on the right course” is one of the rewards she has experienced through participation in E-Connect. This past year, she worked with Chelsea, a senior at Irondale High School, in Mounds View, Minnesota. With encouragement from Jennifer to explore postsecondary education, Chelsea began a conversation with her family about careers and postsecondary education, quickly settling on a career in the medical field. She is now enrolled in the Certified Nurse Assistant Program through Special Intermediate School District 916 and Century College in White Bear Lake. This program has assisted her in determining that the field of phlebotomy is what she wants to pursue following graduation. “I have a learning disability and I realized that I can go to college; I just need to learn in a way that works for me,” says Chelsea.

Recapping the experience, Beth Quest, special education teacher at Irondale, says, “This experience changed Chelsea’s life. She is a young lady who may have not considered postsecondary education if it hadn’t been for her e-mentor.” For Chelsea the mentoring experience also provided support for personal challenges. She notes, “I was going through a tough time, and Jennifer helped me see that I shouldn’t let things get me down and that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Patty Brill is a project coordinator at Medtronic and the employer liaison for E-Connect with Irondale. She sees many benefits for business involvement in the e-mentoring program. E-Connect closely aligns with the Medtronic mission of helping individuals live fuller and better lives. It also offers an opportunity for community involvement, fosters awareness of disabilities and the potential of individuals with disabilities, and gives employees the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a young person. Patty says of the experience, “It’s easy to get people to volunteer. E-mentors feel like they get more back than they give.”

E-Connect at Navy Island, Inc.

Navy Island, Inc., in West St. Paul, Minnesota, is an award-winning manufacturer of wood veneer products. Navy Island staff have mentored E-Connect students for three years.

The Branch Out Transition Program in West St. Paul offers students with disabilities ages 18-21 a place to continue academic learning while working on skills for adult life. Navy Island offers Branch Out students an inside look into the manufacturing process as well as robotics. Since Navy Island is located only a block away from Branch Out, students and mentors visit each other more frequently than at some other E-Connect sites, and mentors participate in many school activities.

When asked about the value of E-Connect for Branch Out students, teacher Pat Pendleton says, “This program continues to provide our students with new opportunities to connect to the business world and learn about the world of work. The e-mentors are a rich source of information on employment, but are also valued for the guidance and support they give our young adults.” The relationship between Ben, a Branch Out student, and his e-mentor Hans Mourtizen, who works in sales and product management at Navy Island, is a perfect example of this mentoring relationship. Ben’s family came originally from Denmark so it was a perfect match when Hans, who was born in Denmark, became Ben’s e-mentor. In their e-mails and visits, Hans and Ben discuss topics such as apartment hunting and postsecondary education, as well as share stories of their common heritage. Ben has benefited from the guidance that Hans has given him on employment as well as the encouragement he has provided on working through the challenges of postsecondary education. Hans thinks that the richness of the mentoring experience comes from expanded opportunities for longer e-mentoring and opportunities to meet face-to-face.

Through the E-Connect relationship, Navy Island has now offered employment to Branch Out students. Paid through collaboration between Navy Island, West St. Paul Schools, and Midway Training Services, three students are employed at Navy Island working on special projects. One of the students, Leon, who is in his last year at Branch Out, says, “Working at Navy Island has given me the opportunity to learn how to ‘mud’ a room. This is a new skill for me. It’s hands on experience which I can replicate in other areas of my life.”

For the Navy Island mentors the opportunity to be a mentoring business fits with the company’s broader mission of having an impact on the community. Of the experience of mentoring, company co-owner Chad Stone says, “The challenge to connect with a young adult with disabilities is to find some common interest. The young adult I mentored had significant challenges relating with others in the community. I found a common interest with him when I brought in the goat and chicken from my hobby farm. His love of animals was the connector for us. The days go fast in this business, at the end of the day I wonder if I did anything really important. When I look back on the e-mentoring experience I know I have done something important.”


By combining mentoring with e-mail technology, E-Connect gives young adults with disabilities access to mentoring relationships that not only help expand their career horizons, but also give them opportunities to practice electronic communication skills, which are essential to success today, as they think about their futures. Interest in E-Connect as a model for connecting students to business continues to grow, and e-mentoring partnerships around the state continue to help students with disabilities prepare for employment and education after high school.