Mentoring Truly Changes Lives – Let’s Make It A Priority.
Mentoring is on my mind these days. For the past three years, I participated in Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning and Scholarship research seminar on Mentoring Undergraduate Research. For one (hot and humid) week every July for the past three years a group of faculty from across the world met to focus exclusively on mentoring. I learned a lot. A lot about what I thought I knew, a lot about what I didn’t know, a lot about what I wanted to know.
I came away thinking that I still have much to learn about effective mentoring, and that - despite my aspirations and best intentions - I may not be delivering the level of mentoring that I thought I was. I guess this is what we mean by “life-long learning.” I’m learning.
What is mentoring and why is it important for students?
In his book On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty, W. Brad Johnson writes,
Deliberate and thoughtful mentoring is one of the most important and enduring roles for the higher education faculty.1
This is more than his opinion. Research on mentoring confirms that it has a positive impact on the personal and professional development of young adults. Daniel Levison refers to the mentor relationship as “one of the most complex, and developmentally important a person can have in early adulthood”.2 And Russell and Adams assert that the identification of at least one important mentor should be considered a major developmental goal of a student’s college education.3
In terms of concrete, measurable, and direct outcomes, there is a growing body of research suggesting an empirical link between student mentoring and student retention.4-6 Moreover, while availability of exemplary mentors is valuable for all students, it may be especially critical to the retention and success of traditionally underrepresented students. Vince Tinto notes that, “While role modeling seems to be effective in retention programs generally, it appears to be especially important among those programs concerned with disadvantaged minority students.”7
Not to put too fine a point on it, but some educational leaders conclude that departments have a moral responsibility (emphasis mine) to ensure that students are mentored by faculty.8
This seems above and beyond the academic advising I historically offered to my thirty some advisees each year. And given what we are learning about students and their success, perhaps it is.
A 2014 Gallop Purdue Index survey of nearly 30,000 college graduates reported that the type of instiution students attended had little bearing on work-place engagement or well-being after graduation. However, the study found that for those graduates who recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, who excited them about learning, and who encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of well-being.1,9
Unfortunately, few students reported being supported in this way.
Only 27% of students responded “my professors at college cared about me as a person,” and only 22% reported that they had a mentor in college who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams.9
This bears repeating. Despite the importance of having a mentor for future success and well-being, the vast majority - 78% - of students reported that they could not recall having even one professor who mentored them.
And as our colleague Buff Smith reminds us, many of our students need faculty mentoring to navigate the "hidden curriculum" of higher education, and won't succeed without it.
So, where does this leave us? Mentoring matters. A lot. But only about 25% of students report that they receive it. Perhaps this is because not all of us know how to do it. And - if you will permit me to go out on a heretical limb - not all of us do it well, at least not all the time. Myself included.
I have advisees. Isn’t that mentoring? Advising versus Mentoring: What’s in a name?
Advising can be - but is not always - mentoring. To borrow from Merriam-Webster, to advise is “to give an opinion or suggestion to someone about what should be done: to give advice to (someone): to recommend or suggest (something): to give information to (someone).” While a mentor is defined as “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.” They are similar, but clearly not the same thing.
A study of faculty teaching PhD or MD/PhD students examined perceptions of advising versus mentoring. The 3,500 faculty in the study were more likely to prefer being viewed as advisors (54 %) than mentors (38 %). The take-away for the authors of the study is that development of advisors who have the ability to provide mentoring should begin by defining role expectations and responsibilities to prepare faculty advisors to interact with students in ways comparable to mentors. The authors state, “We expect faculty members to know how to teach and how to mentor; yet, we rarely discuss how to develop and shape the necessary skills of advisors so, that they more closely resemble those of mentors.” 7
Given its importance, what stands in the way of developing meaningful student/faculty mentoring relationships? I believe that the vast majority of faculty want to be the kind of mentors that John Gardner referred to when he said that:
Students need mentors and facilitators. They need, in the words of Carl Rogers, authentic professional human beings who are worthy of emulation. They need models who exhibit professional behavior, a sense of commitment and purposefulness, and a sense of autonomy and integrity in a world that generates enormous stress.10
But, let’s face it, most of us were never formally trained in the processes and procedures for developing mentoring relationships. Few of us received any training in how to do this. We came as new faculty, were assigned advisees, and attended advisor training. Most of us are making this up as we go along, guided by our commitment to our students, our intuition, our professionalism, and our own experiences with mentors. In our own journeys, some of us have never encountered mentors, much less mentors that we might emulate.
Added to this lack of experience and training, many (dare I say most?) of us already feel stressed and over-extended. How can we add mentoring to our overflowing plate, especially when the reward structure in higher education gives primacy to scholarship and teaching?
Across the academy, very few academic departments directly and specifically reward mentoring. There are awards for teaching and research excellence, and teaching loads may be lightened for research, committee work, and service, but rarely are loads altered to allow time for thoughtful, impactful student mentoring.
We list the number of advisees on our annual reports, but rarely do we assess, measure, or reflect upon the quality of this advising or mentoring. So, it should be no surprise that mentoring often becomes one of the many collateral pieces of faculty work.
But given its importance, perhaps that is time to move this from the sidelines of faculty work and add a fourth leg to our traditional tripod of teaching, research, and service.
Moving toward a culture of mentoring
So, mentoring matters. A lot. We may or may not choose our mentees. We have no training in it. We are not assessed for it. It takes time. Students want it. Students really need it.
So now what? For starters, let’s talk about it; learn about it, assess it, engage students in the conversation, ask students what they need, learn from the scholarship and experiences of others, consider it as we design our curricula and co-curricular activities, re-think our evaluation and reward structures and priorities.
And let’s mentor one another. Mentor across disciplines, schools and colleges, celebrate and elevate those among us who do this well. We often know who these people are. We need to work hard to be attentive and deliberate so that as we work to raise our institutional and individual professional profiles, we don’t inadvertently build a culture that marginalizes the time and care put into quality student mentorship (which may lead to fewer student research partners, fewer prestigious publications, etc.). We need to share the load and recognize that our diversity of interests, talents, strengths, and interests serve our community better than a homogenous talent pool.
We haven’t been trained in this. So what. Let’s take a page out of our own book. Our mission and commitment to liberal arts as the foundation for learning takes as its central premise learning, adapting, and solving problems outside of disciplinary boundaries. Everyday we stretch from our PhD training into new areas. We can do this.
Some ways to begin:
- Seek out opportunities for learning how to mentor colleagues effectively: Join the Mentoring for Success program as a mentee or as a mentor and check out the mentoring resources in the Faculty Development Center.
- Make sure you are fully up to speed with advisee training: Even if you feel like an expert advisor, take advantage of opportunities to learn more about advising. The Undergraduate Studies office, in partnership with Academic Counseling and Support, offers one-on-one consulting sessions aimed at addressing a faculty advisor’s particular needs and interests. To arrange a session, contact Wendy Wyatt at email@example.com.
- Pick up a copy of Brad Johnson’s excellent book On Being a Mentor (also available from the St. Thomas OSF Library), and share it with colleagues.
And when you get tired and overwhelmed, remember, this is the central mission of our work: to educate students in meaningful, impactful, lasting ways. I can think of no greater work. And it’s a privilege.
- Johnson, W. Brad (2007). On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Levinson, D. J., Darrow, C. N., Klein, E. B., Levinson, M. H., & McKee, B. (1978). The Seasons Of A Man’s Life. New York: Ballentine.
- Russell, J. E. A., & Adams, D. M. (1997). The changing nature of mentoring in organizations: An introduction to the special issues on mentoring and organizations. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 51, 1–14.
- Campbell, T. A., & Campbell, D. E. (1997). Faculty/student mentor program: Effects on academic performance and retention. Research in Higher Education, 38, 727–742.
- Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of Educational Research, 61, 505–532.
- Wallace, D. & Abel, R. & Ropers-Huilman, B. (2000). Clearing a Path for Success: Deconstructing Borders Through Undergraduate Mentoring. The Review of Higher Education 24(1), 87-102.
- Titus SLand Ballou JM. (2013). Faculty members' perceptions of advising versus mentoring: does the name matter? Sci Eng Ethics. Sep;19(3):1267-81.
- Weil, V. (2001) Mentoring: Some Ethical Considerations. Science and Engineering Ethics. 7 (4): 471-482.
- Gallop (2014). Life in college, work, and well-being. New Gallop-Purdie study looks at links among college, work, and well-being. Retrieved from http://www.gallop.com/poll/168848/life-college-matters-life-college.aspx.
- Gardner, J. (1981). Developing faculty as facilitators and mentors. In V. A. Harren, M. N. Daniels, & J. N. Buck (Eds.), Facilitating students’ career development (pp. 67-80) New Directions for Student Services, No. 14. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.