As a Cisco IT program manager, Vijay Nerella spends his workday in back-to-back meetings. Vijay’s team is responsible for ongoing IT programs that support the work of dozens of groups within Cisco. It’s a responsibility that requires constant communication and coordination. His Outlook calendar is blocked and booked daily.

Yet, in the middle of a typical meeting-intensive day, Vijay has a volunteer commitment: he is tutoring a 7th-grade student in algebra through a nonprofit organization called We Teach Science (WTS).

At 3:00 p.m., his Outlook reminds him to log into the WTS Remote Tutoring and Mentoring (RTM) program. RTM is a web-based interactive whiteboard and communication platform customized specifically for WTS.

The student attends a school in another city in California, at least two hours away from where Vijay works in San Jose. But Vijay simply walks to the small conference room he has reserved for the same hour on the same day each week and connects to the student with a few keystrokes.

RTM is a simple, virtual way for STEM professionals to volunteer their time for local students.

“Mentors for STEM—which encompasses science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs—are in high demand. But it can be challenging for them to find time to volunteer,” says Alex Belous, education portfolio manager for the Cisco Foundation, which has been supporting WTS since 2011.

“WTS uses collaborative technology that removes the obstacles of time and travel for potential mentors,” he adds. “Their approach matches Cisco’s focus on empowering global problem solvers through technology and expertise to make a positive difference for people, society, and the planet.”

WTS focuses on economically underserved students, especially minority populations and females. Students often begin the program performing far below average. In the 2015-16 school year, students (on average) showed growth in math knowledge of approximately one grade level based on pre- and post-assessment tests. For most of these students, this was their first year of growth in math.

“A flourishing digital economy will need every eager young mind,” says Alex, “and every child should have the education to be successful in this unprecedented era of connectivity. Math, and specifically algebra is a fundamental building block for STEM. The WTS remote mentoring model has proven to be extremely effective in helping struggling students become confident in math. It’s a real testament to the power of mentoring, which WTS has made more accessible scalable through technology.”

Removing the Obstacles of Time and Travel

WTS actually began as a classroom-based mentoring program. “It was clear that it would be difficult to bring in qualified volunteers, battling traffic and packed professional calendars,” says Michael Schwerin, regional development officer for WTS. “Once we deployed RTM, mentors could connect wherever they are—office, home, or on the road—with their students. It makes volunteering easier and eliminates any geographical boundaries for recruiting mentors.”

Students meet with their assigned mentors online for 45-60 minute sessions once per week throughout the school year. Initial grant funding from Cisco helped WTS expand the program to more students, schools, and regions across the U.S. It enabled the program to double the number of students it serves (from 200 to 400) across six school districts in California and Texas. In 2016, the program provided over 4,400 hours of e-mentoring and tutoring sessions from mentors based in 35 states.

Program Coordinators closely monitor relationships to ensure a positive and safe experience for both mentors and students. They review sessions (all of which are recorded and stored) and provide feedback. In fact, Cisco funding enabled WTS to increase its staff of program coordinators to support the mentors, as well as work on-site with school administration and teachers.

Vijay says that the support of the program coordinators makes a big difference in helping him work through any roadblocks with his student. “Last year I got some feedback from the program coordinator that was very helpful—I needed to work on providing more examples from real life to explain the math problems. I also needed to spend more time on breaking the ice with my student, investing the time to make sure he was really engaged.”

The time WTS puts into supporting mentors has paid off in a high retention rate of 65 percent.

Commitment is a Mentor’s Most Important Qualification

Annette Blum is a product marketing manager for Cisco, working with global stakeholders on Cisco’s enterprise solutions. “I loved math in school, but I pursued a career in marketing,” says Annette. “I was pretty confident that I could mentor a student in math, but I wasn’t sure if programs like We Teach Science would be interested in someone who wasn’t an engineer.”

The answer was a resounding “yes!”

“We were incredibly excited that Annette was interested in becoming a mentor,” says Michael. “You don’t have to be an engineer to be an effective mentor. We have at least three levels of support for anyone who is interested in becoming a mentor.”

Annette herself was particularly inspired by the fact that WTS makes a focused effort to find mentors for young girls, who are underrepresented in STEM fields. “I feel very strongly about empowering women, and education is a huge part of that,” says Annette.

We Teach Science’s Tutoring and Mentoring program reduces the failure rate of Algebra students

To her delight, Annette was paired with a young female student whose background is vastly different from her own. “I knew it would be more challenging to find common ground, but that effort has become one of the most rewarding aspects of this program for me.”

Even though results are tracked against academic goals, Annette realized what motivated her student was consistency. “Showing up every week throughout the school year—just for that single hour—has incredible value. I don’t think my student has many female role models. I have an opportunity to remind her that she is clever, she is a problem solver, and that she has a voice that should be heard.”

Annette also appreciates the mentor support that WTS provides through the program coordinators. “A few weeks into that first school year of tutoring, I began to have serious doubts that I was reaching my student. I relayed my concern to the program coordinator. To my surprise, I received a note informing me that my student’s teachers and her grandfather, who is her primary caregiver, had all noticed improvements in her performance and her enthusiasm for learning. It completely changed how I looked at my contributions to this young girl’s life.”

An Unexpected Lesson: What Mentors Bring Back to the Workplace

Working with disadvantaged children is often personally rewarding to mentors. But Annette and Vijay have also learned lessons they didn’t expect going into the program. Their jobs, while very different, require intensive personal interactions with peers. Not surprisingly, productive interactions are often sidetracked by differences in personal style, communication misunderstandings, and other all-too-human issues.

“I didn’t see it immediately, but I realized that the kinds of skills I was learning as a mentor were actually helping me in these workplace relationships,” says Annette. “My student often came to sessions with an attitude or issues that I couldn’t readily understand. I had to keep reminding myself that she’s giving her best effort. I’ve found that same perspective helps me in the workplace.”

Vijay has had a similar experience. “In my job, I have to be as good at building relationships as I am at the technical side of my job. Mentoring has helped me strengthen my ability to relate to people who have a different communications style than I have. It’s even helped me understand my 10-year-old daughter a little better.”

“This perfectly embodies Cisco’s belief that people like Annette and Vijay are social change agents,” says Alex. “They’re inspiring the students they’re mentoring. They’re also bringing a different perspective on relationship building to the workplace. And they’re sharing their experiences with their colleagues, which we hope will encourage other people to get involved as mentors.”

Michael and Alex are now talking about the next step for WTS. “We want to reach out to students at an even younger age. We want to strengthen a student’s math skills and confidence in their abilities before they even start taking algebra,” says Michael. “We also want to innovate around measuring some of the intangibles outcomes of mentoring—things that students learn about themselves and their potential that can’t be measured in a test score.”

“We’re looking forward to working with WTS to take the program into even more innovative areas for STEM mentoring,” says Alex. “WTS is a perfect example of how each of us can help solve a tough challenge just by showing up.”

“I would urge all of my colleagues at Cisco to look into the WTS mentoring program. It’s a comparatively modest time investment that pays big dividends to a child,” says Annette. “And you get summers off!”

Want to use your skills to make a positive impact in someone’s life? Download our Illustrated Guide: 7 Ways to Be a Global Problem Solver in Your Own Community.

Our support of We Teach Science is one example of how Cisco is harnessing the power of the digital revolution to accelerate global problem solving, enabling people and societies to thrive in the digital economy. Our goal is to positively impact 1 billion people by 2025.


Peter Tavernise

Climate Impact and Regeneration Lead

Director, Cisco Public Benefit Investment