The Formative Years: How One SEE INP Alumna Helps Prepare Underprivileged Youth for Adulthood
In 2014, Yulia Fatkhullina decided it was time for a change. A successful attorney living in Tyumen, Russia, Yulia said goodbye to her law practice and embarked on an altogether new path. Driven by her passion to inspire lasting, positive change in the lives of others, Yulia became a mentor for underprivileged youth. She started her journey as a volunteer at an orphanage in Tyumen. Yulia is now director of the non-profit organization Nastavnik, or “Mentor,” leading a team of 15 dedicated youth mentors and working with 40 youth.
In spring 2019, Yulia participated in Eurasia Foundation’s U.S.-Russia Social Expertise Exchange Program as an independent professional fellow. Through the fellowship, she traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California, to conduct site visits and interviews with local mentoring organizations. “While in the U.S. I realized we do the same work in our countries and share a lot in common. I was happy to meet like-minded people in Phoenix and Los Angeles to share my experience and to know theirs. It was an excellent opportunity to learn best mentoring practices in the U.S., expanding my horizons and acquiring new innovative approaches,” recounted Yulia.
During her stay, Yulia visited eight organizations in Phoenix and Los Angeles that mentor underprivileged youth. One new mentoring technique that intrigued Yulia was an initiation process, in which mentees signal their readiness to follow their mentors’ guidance. Proponents of this system argue that initiation helps mentees develop a sense of confidence and responsibility for their own growth.
Yulia adapted this technique at Nastavnik by organizing a two-day graduation ceremony for mentees, which symbolizes their entry into adulthood. During a recent ceremony, mentees and their mentors engaged in various group activities, including crafts, cooking, and goal setting. The ceremony allowed participants to reflect on their shared experiences in an informal setting, where everyone could share their fondest memories and hopes for the future.
Yulia was further impressed by U.S. mentoring organizations’ use of creative writing to recover from emotional trauma. In Los Angeles, Yulia visited WriteGirl, a non-profit that promotes creativity, critical thinking, and leadership skills to empower teenage girls. WriteGirl pairs professional authors, journalists, bloggers with at-risk teens to help them develop and write stories, through which they can express and process their emotions. Yulia has since implemented this process in Tyumen among 10 to 12-year-old mentees. Children process traumas and express their dreams for the future by writing poems and short stories.
Yulia also shared valuable insights into Russian mentorship approaches with her U.S. peers. “Each mentee participating in my project is paired with two mentors: one for developing soft skills, including communicative abilities and socio-cultural values, and another for developing hard skills, with a focus on a certain career path. My American colleagues praised this innovative approach and said they would like to adopt it in their own work.” Yulia’s colleagues were also moved by Russian mentors’ heavy emphasis on developing an emotional connection with their mentees, which helps them create a trusting and meaningful relationship.
Since returning to Tyumen, Yulia has started a pen-pal project to connect American and Russian children involved in mentoring programs. “Nastavnik’s pen-pal program brings children and teenagers together despite being thousands of miles apart. Our mentees were very enthusiastic writing letters to each other and learning more about each other’s countries. Language barriers limit the number of pen-pal participants on each side, but at the same time this serves as a good motivation to learn foreign languages,” explained Yulia.
Reflecting on the transformational power of her project, Yulia expressed that connecting underprivileged and at-risk youth, many of whom lack parental figures, with responsible and compassionate adult mentors has been her constant source of inspiration and encouragement.
“Guidance, support, and a strong emotional bond during the formative years can change the life of an at-risk child. It is deeply rewarding to see how our former mentees are making a successful transition to adulthood. Watching their growth makes me even more determined to scale up the project and amplify the impact of our work.”