Mentoring students: every little helps

Being a mentor needn’t just mean formal, timetabled meetings. Everyday encounters can help students thrive, both during university and long after graduation

My undergraduate research mentor right from the start was really careful about how I thought about science and making sure that my voice was validated and that I was asking questions in lab meetings. She also would carve out time to talk one-on-one about science. She’d ask what I think and really listen to what I said. That’s how I learned to develop my science brain.

– Samantha Paskvan, University of Washington

University of Michigan student and peer mentor Brandon Bond took one of his advisee’s worries to heart:

She is a pre-med student and so of course she was worried about completing all of these required classes; however, she really wanted to study abroad and worried she would never be able to do that because of her pre-med requirements. So one day I sat down with her at one of our cafés and pulled out a study abroad program catalog so we could narrow down her top program options. After doing so she was then worried about money, so we made the whole budget for everything, and I suggested some scholarships she should apply for through the university. She eventually had a plan to pay for everything, to study abroad, and to stay in pre-med

A conversation in a café turned the improbable into the possible, influencing the nature and quality of a student’s undergraduate education.

Every day, on every college and university campus, moments like this take place among students, faculty, staff, alumni, and others. Sometimes these conversations are the result of chance encounters on sidewalks. Other times they constitute more formal meetings to discuss specific issues or questions. They might stem from existing relationships or passing acquaintance. However they occur, mentoring conversations have the potential to be consequential moments in the lives of students.

Mentoring students: making moments matter

Mentoring in higher education is commonly understood to be a sustained relationship between a scholar and a protégé. The more senior mentor offers expert knowledge and sage advice that makes it possible for the student to eventually enter the community of scholars. To yield life-changing results, this form of mentoring takes time and commitment. One-on-one mentoring is an academic ideal but nearly impossible to scale at the undergraduate level because the sheer quantity of protégés overwhelms the number of available mentors. The math just does not work at most institutions. Fortunately, shorter forms of mentoring interactions –particularly one-on-one or group conversations with peers or faculty or staff members who can ask insightful questions or offer timely advice – have been demonstrated to have powerful outcomes for undergraduates.

‘Mentoring on the run’ describes those times when you are passing a student and just ask them a simple, pointed question – Sean James, California State University

Scholars and practitioners use different terminology to describe these kinds of mentoring conversations. Brad Johnson of the United States Naval Academy uses the term mentor of the moment to describe an aspect of a healthy culture where meaningful interactions are normal, everyday occurrences:

I think it’s very powerful in a culture when mentoring is valued and says, “This is a part of who we are and what we do. It’s part of our daily activity. It’s part of the way we show up to work. It’s who we are as a culture.” People, including faculty, are empowered to be mentors of the moment to people they encounter who are not their primary advisees. They’re the kind of folks who when they walk down the hall or when they’re walking across campus and they see someone, they’re willing to stop and check and ask, How are you doing? What’s going on? Even though we only have a few minutes, sometimes in these short interactions, special kinds of wisdom can be passed along, permission can be given, and inspiration can be offered.

It doesn’t have to be this long, extensive, three- or four-year commitment for the interaction to be meaningful – Mary Deane Sorcinelli, University of Massachusetts

Mary Deane Sorcinelli, a leading scholar of faculty development, uses the term just-in-time mentoring to describe these interactions. She also underscores that such conversations are good for everyone in higher education, not only students: “Just- in-time mentoring is that moment of conversation where someone directs me to a particular individual I need to talk with or sits down with me and makes one thing particularly clear about what’s happening in my classroom right now. It doesn’t have to be this long, extensive, three- or four-year commitment for the interaction to be meaningful.”

Sean James, director of the Educational Opportunity Program at California State University–Dominguez Hills, employs the term mentoring on the run to describe capturing the power of moments in the busy lives of students and student affairs staff, emphasising that what might seem a casual conversation is actually an opportunity for lasting impact: “‘Mentoring on the run’ describes those times when you are passing a student and just ask them a simple, pointed question. I think there are a lot of things we can do in those unstructured moments to really help students gain understanding and belonging.” Of course, the art in posing such a question is to pause and listen to the response and then take time to offer a comment, a reflection, a bit of tailored advice, a word of encouragement, or a challenging follow-up.

Mentoring communities

Mentoring conversations, whether sustained over long periods or grabbed “on the run,” “just in time,” or “of the moment,” are much more likely to happen in a culture that values and practices mentoring in many forms and locations throughout the college. Sharon Parks underscores the importance of webs of mentoring programs and networks: “Optimal learning and development depend on access to a mentoring environment, and higher education functions best when there is clear understanding of this critical role: how the academy is composed of multiple mentoring communities, each providing in appropriate and accountable ways the recognition, support, challenge, and inspiration so vital for emerging adult lives.”

Whether it’s advisors or peer mentors, all of those relationships are at the heart of education, not just elite education – Randy Bass, Georgetown University

Members of authentic mentoring communities attend to students’ growth and development and act on the idea that relationships are the indispensable building blocks of such communities. Drawing on a longitudinal study of students and alumni at Hamilton College, Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs describe this concept with special clarity:

Relationships are central to a successful college experience. They are the necessary precondition, the daily motivator, and the most valuable outcome. Therefore, specific human beings matter. A student must have friends, needs good teachers, and benefits from mentors. . . . Mentors, we found, can be invaluable and even life changing. Relationships shape in detail students’ experience: what courses they take or majors they declare, whether they play a sport or join an extracurricular activity, whether they gain skills, grow ethically, or learn whatever is offered in various programs. Relationships are important because they raise or suppress the motivation to learn; a good college fosters the relationships that lead to motivation.

The power of mentoring conversations is not reserved for students at small or elite colleges and universities. Randy Bass of Georgetown stresses that “we need to tell the counternarrative that relationships are actually what make all of higher education so powerful for all students. Whether it’s advisors or peer mentors, all of those relationships are at the heart of education, not just elite education.”

Stanford Graduate School of Education tells students that if you intentionally focus on learning and community, including seeking out faculty, staff, and peer mentors, you “are more likely to thrive after college”

Zaretta Hammond reinforces Bass’s assertion by placing “authentic relationships” at the heart of culturally responsive teaching. Indeed, this point is echoed throughout the research on undergraduate education; a recent synthesis from the Stanford Graduate School of Education boldly tells students that if you intentionally focus on learning and community, including seeking out faculty, staff, and peer mentors, you “are more likely to thrive after college.”

Ancient forests and mentoring students

Laurent Parks Daloz, a scholar of mentoring and higher education, uses the metaphor of a tree to illustrate what a community of mentoring is really all about:

Ecologists tell us that a tree planted in a clearing of an old forest will grow more successfully than one planted in an open field. The reason, it seems, is that the roots of the forest tree are able to follow the intricate pathways created by former trees and thus embed themselves more deeply. Indeed, over time, the roots of many trees may actually graft themselves to one another, creating an interdependent mat of life hidden beneath the earth’s surface. This literally enables the stronger trees to share resources with the weaker so the whole forest becomes healthier. Similarly, we human beings thrive best when we grow in the presence of those who have gone before.

If every student is to put down deep roots in college and to thrive after graduation, then each individual on campus must be conscious of how interconnected we are and the enormous potential we hold when we share with our students our expertise and our own humanity.


This material is excerpted with permission from Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College by Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright 2020. 

University Business readers get a special discount of 30% off RRP, when purchasing direct from Johns Hopkins University Press’ European distributor, John Wiley & Sons Ltd – call +44 (0) 1243 843291 or email quoting discount code HNAF. Postage and packing extra.

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