by Allison McWilliams, Ph.D.
As a leader of mentoring initiatives and programs on a college campus, I am constantly looking for new methods and opportunities to connect with our students, to help them to build community, and to explore their choices and decisions in meaningful, intentional ways. We have, of course, the usual formal mentoring programs and encourage informal mentoring relationships across the campus. But we have found that these programs still only reach a limited population of our students.
Those who are our high achievers will seek out those formal mentoring programs as they recognize the value there to connect with a faculty or staff member or a peer, and to gain critical feedback and perspective. Similarly, these same students may look for informal mentoring relationships with faculty, staff, alumni, or peers; more often, a faculty member or staff member will choose to take a student “under his or her wing” and provide ongoing support and developmental opportunities. This is, of course, the foundational model of mentoring relationships in higher education: the faculty member/advisor who works with student advisees to help them to transition into college, be successful academically, and transition out to jobs or graduate school (Crisp & Cruz, 2009; Lentz & Allen, 2010).
These formal and informal relationships are important ones and are ones we continue to grow and develop in intentional ways. In an ideal world, all of our students would participate in one or more of these relationships. But just as there are many different types of learners, we have also learned over the past few years that there are opportunities to have other kinds of mentoring interactions, mentoring moments, if you will. These mentoring moments do not require the same kind of investment on the part of the mentor but can still have considerable impact on the mentee. Some of the mentoring moments we are experimenting with take the form of short-term, highly structured mentoring relationships, group mentoring, and, even, one-time interactions. Each of these provides a different type of engagement for students, one that is both valued and needed.
Most of our formal mentoring programs take place over the course of a semester or a year and require, at a minimum, monthly interactions, preferably every two weeks, between mentoring partners. In 2011, we launched a series of for-credit career courses in collaboration with our department of counseling to help students explore personal attributes that influence future academic and professional decisions and to consider the factors that create a meaningful, fulfilling life after college. In 2012, the third of these courses was implemented and included a formal mentoring relationship between students and young alumni. Due to the half-semester length of the courses, these mentoring relationships are, by necessity, highly-structured and require just three meetings between the mentor and mentee with explicit topics of focus provided for each meeting to coincide with the learning that was taking place within the classroom:
1. Get to know each other and discuss the concept of a personal brand;
2. Discuss dealing with change and taking positive action towards achieving your goals; and
3. Provide feedback on résumé and cover letter, conduct a mock interview; and discuss lessons learned and future application.
Feedback from these short-term mentoring relationships has been overwhelmingly positive. The mentors like the structure and the short-term commitment, and the mentees find that learning from their mentors’ personal experiences brings the classroom material to life.
A group mentoring model allows for mentees to learn from one another, as well as to interact with a trained mentor/facilitator. While we have had a group mentoring model for our first-year students for a number of years, led by faculty and student advisors and focused on transitioning into college and developing academic goals, this year we are piloting a number of mentoring groups for our juniors and seniors and young alumni. These groups were created in response to an identified need to help these upperclassmen and women and young alumni to navigate issues of community, identity, and transition. Seven junior/senior groups, each led by a trained faculty/staff mentor, will meet four times over the course of this academic year to discuss values, choices, goals, and moving towards that transition to the “real world.” Three young alumni mentoring groups, one each in DC, NYC, and Winston-Salem, are meeting regularly to discuss life after college and associated challenges and opportunities. Each of these groups provides students with a safe space for discussion and reflection, connection with an adult or more senior mentor, and, perhaps most importantly, a model for building community both on-campus and in post-college life.
Starting in 2012, in collaboration with our Office of Alumni Services and Office of Campus Life, we have implemented a series of dinners between students, faculty and staff, and alumni that provide structured conversation and engagement opportunities with limited time commitment. Our “Dining with the Deacs” dinners are hosted by several local alumni, either in their homes or in a restaurant. Groups of 6–8 upperclassmen and women students are paired with each host, and the students and alumni are provided guidance on expectations and behavior. The alumni are given the freedom to choose a discussion topic that appeals to them; most take the form of “life after college” or “life as a [banker, lawyer, doctor, etc.].” In another format, we host dinners on campus for 18–20 students and 5–6 faculty, staff, and alumni. During the meal, the mentors lead discussions at their tables on such topics as definitions of success, overcoming challenges, and creating a balanced life. After dinner, we lead a discussion with the entire room to expand upon these topics. There is no expectation for interaction between participants after these evenings conclude. However, what we find is that both the students and the mentors make an authentic connection and often will make plans to meet again or exchange business cards to follow-up.
These are just a few of the ways that we are experimenting with the model of meaningful mentoring moments, and I would love to hear from other institutions about what they are doing to build opportunities for conversation and connection outside of the norms of traditional mentoring relationships.
Below are a few “lessons learned” from our experience so far.
1. Structure matters.
Even if you are doing something that seems informal, the more structure that you can provide to your participants, the better. In our short-term mentoring relationships, we provide a formal orientation, outline times to meet, and provide discussion topics. In our mentoring groups, we train our mentors, provide expectations to both students and mentors, and provide regular check-in times. In our dinners, we provide written expectations to both students and mentors and help facilitate conversation. Just like with any mentoring program, don’t ask people to just “wing it.” Set them up for success and give them the tools and resources that they need.
2. Develop collaborative partnerships.
Here at Wake Forest, we operate a decentralized model of mentoring, so all of our work depends upon successful collaborative partnerships. But especially with these programs, building bridges with other campus offices is the key to gaining buy-in from the different constituents involved including faculty, staff, alumni, and even the students.
3. Don’t underestimate the value of interpersonal interaction.
We often hear that this generation of students is the most tech savvy, most wired generation ever (Jacobsen & Forste, 2011). This may be true, but my personal experience is that either in spite of this or perhaps because of it, they are craving meaningful, personal interactions. Our dinner spots fill up in 15 minutes. We had to add a junior/senior mentoring group and cut off registrations due to the demand. To me, this speaks to the value and need to provide these opportunities for our students. And we consistently hear from faculty, staff, and alumni who participate in these programs that they love the opportunity to engage with students in these ways.
4. Assess for success.
As with any strategic developmental initiative, assessment is imperative to learn what is working and what isn’t. We assess each of our dinners with an evaluation form that is sent to both mentors and mentees to ask for their feedback. The participants in our mentoring groups just completed a pre-assessment of their perceived current state; this assessment will influence the discussion topics and will be used in comparison to a post-assessment administered at the end of the year to assess change. Participants in the career course mentoring program have recently completed an in-depth survey as part of a research project exploring perceived gains in knowledge and ability. Each of these assessment tools will be used to improve upon these mentoring initiatives in the future.
Research demonstrates the need for mentees to develop effective mentoring networks to provide access to a diversity of perspectives and resources (Higgins & Kram, 2001). We, as administrators and leaders, also need to provide a diversity of opportunities for mentees to engage with potential mentors in meaningful ways. Formal and informal mentoring programs and relationships are one means of interaction. Intentional, facilitated mentoring moments—whether highly-structured or more informal—are another tool at your disposal to help mentees to build these networks, gain wisdom and insight based on personal perspective, and develop effective relationships for personal and professional growth.
Crisp, G., & Cruz, I. (2009). Mentoring college students: A critical review of the literature between 1990 and 2007. Research in Higher Education, 50, 525-545.
Higgins, M.C., & Kram, K.E. (2001) Reconceptualizing mentoring at work: A developmental network perspective. The Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 264-288.
Jacobsen, W.C., & Forste, R. (2011). The wired generation: Academic and social outcomes of electronic media use among university students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14(5), 275-280.
Lentz, E., & Allen, T.D. (2010). Reflections on naturally occurring mentoring relationships. In Tammy D. Allen & Lillian T. Eby (Eds.), The Blackwell handbook of mentoring: A multiple perspectives approach (pp.159-162). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.