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iStock/Drazen Lovric

“Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own … If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.”

Barack Obama was not necessarily talking about professors when he spoke those words at a 2012 campaign event. But for those of us who work in higher education, it rings true. We got as far as we did because of mentors, and we owe the next generation no less. For professors and others who work in higher education, mentoring is the way that we honor those who mentored us.

So why is mentoring our students often so low on the faculty agenda?

A Ph.D. student recently asked me why faculty members spend so little time mentoring, according to recent studies of how professors spend their week. She asked this question as someone entering the academy hoping to help more students succeed in college -- particularly those from underrepresented groups.

Studies show that professors spend between 2 and 6 percent of their time working one-on-one with students -- much less than the time they spend on meetings, preparing for class or on research. For many faculty members, time for mentoring falls through the cracks, as other tasks are more urgent and because many professors feel uncomfortable talking to students about anything beyond direct course content.

As someone who has worked with low-income and first-generation students in middle and high school to help them make the jump to college, I know that mentoring is vital for their success, both before and after they reach campus. While programs such as Upward Bound and GEAR UP can help students get through the applications, the financial aid forms and the enrollment process, those who work in college access programs desperately hope that, on the other side of the divide, there are people in higher education who are committed to our students.

Among college faculty, mentoring enjoys a mixed reputation. Faculty members recognize that without mentors they would not be where they are today. Everyone required teachers who, at the undergraduate level, encouraged us to enter graduate school. But despite that reality, many professors perceive mentoring as a role for other people. Faculty members often deride undergraduates as an endless time sink -- people who need to be referred as soon as possible to an academic adviser or a mental health counselor.

When I think back to my undergraduate self and the aimless conversations I generated for faculty members, I am embarrassed. But my teachers in college and graduate school were able to help me focus my ideas a bit, and they wove acceptance and encouragement into our discussions. I do not recall all the things they said, but I do remember that they listened to my ideas -- even as an 18-year-old who had no business taking up their time.

If faculty members take mentoring seriously, it can pay benefits for their institutions as well. In the National Survey of Student Engagement, mentoring is measured by a series of items that determine whether or not students talked about career plans with a faculty member; worked with a faculty member on activities other than course work (committees, student groups, etc.); discussed course topics, ideas or concepts with a faculty member outside of class; or reviewed their academic performance with a faculty member. Those kinds of discussions, which form the core of what we call mentoring at the college level, are recognized as one of the keys to long-term student success.

Discussions with students outside class about their interests, ideas and aspirations are really the gateway to many other activities that enrich the student experience. Such conversations can help steer students into undergraduate research projects, community experiences and potential jobs and careers. When faculty members are not having such discussions with students, it shows. A few students may be engaged with the campus, but most are sitting in their cars between classes.

That is particularly true for any student who may feel unsure on campus -- whether because of economic status, race or ethnicity, language or parental background. Students who cannot call their parents or other relatives for solid college advice are often at a loss as to whom to turn to for help. Many people feel most comfortable mentoring only people like them, but research has shown that good mentoring relationships can cross many social barriers. Mentoring, and trying to reach students who may be less than secure on campus, is a key strategy for building a diverse campus and having students fully engaged in that community.

Tips for Improving Mentoring Skills

So how can faculty members become better at mentoring?

The first step is to recognize all the ways that they are already mentoring, if only in office hours and between classes. If they are running a lab, have students helping with a research project or even have an undergraduate supplemental instructor for a class, they are mentoring every day. Once faculty members recognize that reality, they become more open to the idea of improving as a mentor.

Faculty members can also raise their mentoring game by visibly welcoming and encouraging students. Even when they have bad news to deliver, showing students through words and body language that they are listening to them makes a difference. People are much more able to accept your questions and advice when they feel positively about your relationship, so any effort that can be made toward that will make the message more likely to be heard and heeded.

Professors will also find that they are more effective as mentors and better able to help students begin to solve their own problems if they can focus on a few key questions with students: What is your goal? Where are you right now in relation to the goal? What first step can you take to get there?

On occasion, faculty members will need to step in with advocacy or direct help, but those cases are rare. Most of what students need from the faculty is someone to listen to them, without interrupting, and to ask questions to focus on what they can do next to reach their goals.

I have found that, for myself, having a project to work on helps the mentoring experience. Collaborating on a community activity, making a joint presentation, going out and working with a class or after-school program -- these are all great opportunities for learning and mentoring. After such experiences, people tend to trust each other more and are willing to open up about their thoughts.

Involving students in research and community projects is also a high-impact practice, with mentoring and improved learning building on each another. You can start small. We have had first-year work-study students in our office progress to participating in grant programs in their junior and senior years, capping their time with us with undergraduate research experiences and presentations.

Mentoring, rather than being peripheral to the faculty role, is one of the keys to the long-term effectiveness of higher education. It is one of the main things that MOOCs cannot do. It creates better learning experiences for our students. It helps our students achieve in our classes and persist to graduation. And it helps them achieve more when they enter the job market. Mentoring is never the whole answer to any one problem of higher education, but it can be an essential part of many efforts that colleges and universities undertake to improve the student experience.

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