Mentors in College—What They Are and Why They Matter
Mentors in college can help your student develop interests, talents, support systems, even their life path once they leave your “nest.”
Ron Lieber, New York Times columnist and author of The Price You Pay For College asserts that college mentors for students go a long way towards fostering happiness and success both in college and afterwards.
It’s hard to let go. But if you help your child find other advisors, you can stand back and let the mentor magic happen.
What Is a Mentor?
The Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, is a good example of how mentorship can work.
In the movie, Elizabeth Harmon, orphaned at a young age, rises to worldwide prominence as a chess player despite many setbacks, including a life-threatening addiction.
Although without parents, she doesn’t “make it” alone. A series of coaches, teachers, and collaborators—Jolene, an older girl who shows her the ropes at the orphanage; Mr. Shaibel, the janitor who teaches her chess in the orphanage basement; and Benny, a chess-playing friend, and fellow strategist—help Beth find her way.
Hopefully, your child has not experienced the early misfortune Beth did, and (let’s be honest), many children are not likely to be prodigies like Beth; still, the character is a case in the point made by Lieber and backed by research conducted by Gallup.
Students are successful when they find supporters that take them and their work seriously.
Different Types of Mentors
A mentor in college or work doesn’t have to be a much older person like Beth’s first chess teacher, but they probably should have more experience. A mentor gives tips, shares contacts, provides encouragement, delivers feedback, and offers probing or reframing questions as needed.
Academic mentors are often high school teachers, coaches or counselors, or college professors in your student’s field. Your student might engage with academic mentors through independent studies, internships, service-learning projects, and research assistantships, according to Forbes.
Leadership experts like Anthony Tjan, stress the importance of mentors starting in high school. High school students with mentors earn better grades, set higher goals, and have greater extracurricular participation rates.
If your child needs social encouragement, or just some help studying for exams, they might do well to find an older peer to give them advice and help them feel less alone.
A personal mentor might be someone your student meets at the gym, or through a club. This person can coach your child or introduce them to others with similar interests.
A career mentor, usually entry or mid-level, will help your child make connections, and hone their professional goals.
You might encourage your child to think of finding a mentor as “relationship building.” Being a mentee is a purposeful version of getting to know someone, in this case someone who can help them.
Where to Find Mentors and How to Connect
Before they begin the mentor(s) search, Monster suggests your student write a list of goals. What do they want to achieve in college? Where do they see themselves post-college?
If the future seems too abstract, you can suggest they brainstorm what they know right now. What are their current interests? What kinds of people make them feel comfortable?
Once they know what they’re looking for, college students can network and use campus resources to find mentors.
Suggest your student try the following:
- Check the alumni office for lists of alumni in their desired field. Or volunteer at events for visiting alumni.
- Keep an eye out for mentors when pursuing interests. Community service groups, professional societies, and social organizations are great places to start.
- Sports teams and part-time jobs and internships also offer access to potential role models, including career mentors.
- They can use their social media like LinkedIn and email to find academic and career mentors. Advise them to use company, not personal email addresses to reach out.
What Are the Best College Mentorship Programs?
In The Price You Pay for College, Lieber discusses the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report which reveals that students feel more satisfied with their college experience when they connect with a professor, one who cares about them personally; provides them with rigorous—and rigorously graded—assignments; and “coaches them to follow their dreams.”
Gallup also found that just 14 percent of students strongly agreed they had such a mentor. Lieber reports that big, public research universities score second-worst on providing mentors for college students, perhaps because they are more likely to employ adjuncts who, if not paid properly, end up overworked with little time for mentorship.
Lieber also found that Ivy League schools scored worst on mentorship, perhaps because famous researchers may be less focused on one-to-one teaching.
On the brighter side, colleges and universities are responding to the Gallup Report by establishing innovative mentorship programs, Lieber describes:
Subsidized Research Assistantships for Undergraduates
Morton Schapiro, President of Northwestern University, originally hailed from Williams College. At Williams, he realized how great it was from a relationship-building standpoint for undergraduates to do research with faculty members; however in larger universities, this can be inefficient for faculty members since undergraduates can usually only give one or two hours per week of their time.
To make undergraduate research assistantships a win-win for professors and students alike, at Northwestern, Shapiro decided to subsidize the cost of employing Northwestern undergraduates.
Paid Mentors for Business Majors
In response to a shortage of mentors, Butler University has bought mentors in the open market, paying them to support undergraduate business majors.
Paid, assigned mentors include a former chamber of commerce president, and retired executives from health and other industries.
Butler’s mentorship program appears under “lifelong relationships” on the school’s website.
Professors Reimbursed for Sharing Meals with Students
Schools such as Hamilton College tracked social eating encounters and found that students who had dined at a professor’s home reported a greater likelihood, given the choice, of choosing the school again.
Breaking bread with their teachers gives students confidence and a sense of belonging.
While it would be nice if dinners at the “prof’s house” happened naturally, in this day and age they often don’t. So schools are working to formally implement this important relationship-builder between professors and students.
Hamilton College will reimburse any professor who invites a student over for a meal. Dartmouth College offers vouchers for students to take faculty to lunch.
Denison picks up the check when professors are out with students.
Mentorship Programs for First-Generation College Students
First-generation college students might particularly benefit from having someone familiar with campus life and post-college employment strategies. Unfortunately, as reported by Forbes, while three quarters of white graduates recalled having a professor mentor, less than half of first-generation college and minority students did. EAB reports that to amend this, some universities like the University of California Berkeley have instituted programs to connect first-generation students with first-generation alumni and employees.
Make Sure the School Your Child Chooses Values Mentoring
Sometimes you can tell off the bat that a school values personal relationships.
This year Tulane University received an unprecedented 45,000 applications, many through its Early Admissions program, a record particularly remarkable during the pandemic.
The school gives partial credit to the efforts of its enrollment management team, providing students many opportunities to connect through individual virtual interviews, and small group tours. Tulane was also able to safely reopen its campus in 2020.
The bottom line, administrators believe, is that students need to feel seen and heard personally.
When researching colleges with your child, check websites and ask admissions teams about their formal mentorship programs.
Paying it Forward and Becoming a Mentor
While your child is a mentee, encourage them to give back to their mentor. Do they have a skill, like web development, with which their older mentor needs help? Urge them to offer assistance.
By the same token, once your student is a junior or senior in college, they will know how to survive exams, join a club, and make new friends on campus. Maybe this is their time to step up and become a freshman’s mentor.
Mentorship After College
After college, your student can sign up to become an alumni mentor, while continuing to find new mentors in the career or graduate education field of their choice. They should look for both entry-level and mid-level employees to learn the ins and out of job entry and what it takes to get hired.
Looking for more ways to help your child find a mentor? Check out Ron Lieber’s The Price You Pay for College.
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