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The path from the University of Kentucky to Oxford University for one Rhodes scholar went through a university program to cultivate extraordinary academic achievement that included a mentoring component. The student, however, wasn’t exactly someone who seemed destined for great success. “She was not all that good a high school student, but she did amazing work at the university and had the right faculty teaching her in her first year,” says Philipp Kraemer, chair of the Chellgren Center for Undergraduate Excellence at Kentucky, which runs the program. “She blossomed early on.”
It’s an example of how mentors can guide students in reaching their full potential.
Yet many students never get that experience. A Student Voice survey of 2,003 undergrads (sophomores, juniors and seniors) from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, with support from Kaplan, found that nearly half of students can’t identify a single mentor, defined as someone who was not already a friend or family member who was available to give advice on navigating college and planning for after college.
Fifty-five percent of students, who represent 105 institutions and responded to the survey in September, cite not knowing how to find a mentor as a barrier (with 53 percent identifying it as the main single reason). Other common reasons include not knowing what to ask a mentor and not knowing what mentors do.
The survey showed a relationship between having a mentor and feeling ready for the world after college. Nearly three-quarters of those who felt extremely prepared to enter the workforce or go on to their next educational pursuit have had a mentor, compared to about one-quarter of students feeling extremely unprepared. About two-thirds of those who were extremely certain about what they’d like to do after college had a mentor, while only 38 percent of those who were extremely uncertain about their next steps did.
Following are nine ways colleges and universities can expand the number of students seeking mentors and engaging in mentoring programs.
1. Understand how student backgrounds may impact desires to find a mentor.
Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, believes that expanding mentoring opportunities for students must begin with more perspective on students’ experiences leading up to college. “We need to understand where these students have come from, have to understand where they’ve been, to know where they’re going,” says Jack, author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard University Press).
Some students have strategies ingrained in them that worked for getting to college but “aren’t necessarily strategies that will lead them to the greatest success on campus,” he adds.
That message needs to reach families, too. “We need to stop putting families on the back burner unless they are donors,” Jack says.
2. Ensure students understand the reasons behind mentorship.
“It’s not just explaining the benefits, but the rationale behind [mentorship] in the first place,” says Jack. “Saying, ‘Get a mentor because it’ll give you a leg up’” is the wrong approach. “Half the people in the room will believe that’s cheating." he adds. "To ignore that is to create a policy that’s preaching to the choir and shaming those who are not converted already.”
Think of the mentor as a prize that isn’t valued, Jack says. Pre-orientation programs for first-generation students could be a time to discuss mentorship with students. Peers or staff in a first-gen student union, if the college has one, could also have such conversations with new students.
3. Get students more comfortable with the idea of asking for help.
Conversations about mentorship should touch on assistance seeking, since some students think of asking for help as a sign of weakness. “We need to redefine what it means to ask for help,” Jack says. “Asking for help is a sign of strength. It’s expected; it’s rewarded. Asking for help is how you secure the bag.”
As one Arizona public university student survey respondent commented, “I feel like it is scary to approach people and ask if they would mentor you.”
That kind of worry is why some students may benefit most from programs where people have already volunteered to become mentors.
4. Be aware that students may only seek mentors with similar life experiences.
Leaders of programs that match students with mentors may want to ask about gender and racial preferences and then work to ensure that available mentors reflect a variety of identities.
Finding a mentor with the same gender identity is important to four in 10 female students surveyed, compared to 14 percent of male students. Also, LGBTQIA+ students are more likely to prefer a mentor with the same gender identity than straight students. Many students of color -- including more than half of Black students -- seek a mentor with the same racial identity. Only 5 percent of white students feel the same.
5. Encourage in-person and virtual mentoring.
With physical campuses having opened up more fully this fall, and the hope for future semesters offering even more in person, institutional leaders must remember that certain students continue to feel safer with online opportunities. As one Missouri public university student surveyed put it, “I am a virtual student due to being immune-compromised, and a lot of people just forget that we exist and don’t think about us at all.”
6. Offer formal and informal mentorship options.
Kerry Welch of the University of Central Florida values how his institution provides a broad range of opportunities for students to connect with someone. “It can be a very structured, formal mentoring program or a student organization with a bunch of people who have gathered around similar interests, or anything in between,” says Welch, associate vice president for student engagement and leadership development. “We know it won’t catch everyone, but if it catches a few and this other thing catches a few more, now we’re talking.”
Twenty-nine percent of Student Voice survey respondents have been involved in a formal mentoring program, either offered through their institution or another organization. Nearly nine in 10 of those students are at least somewhat satisfied with the program.
7. Consider different levels of mentor relationships.
Kraemer, from the University of Kentucky, says good research universities are offering a range of programs “that will appeal to different students, each with the opportunity for deeper mentorship.” His institution has actively gotten undergraduate students involved in research for decades, he says.
Administrators should be cognizant of how students grow throughout their college careers, he adds. “We can’t do with first-year students what we do with seniors. But we can develop a process that moves along and allows individuals choices.”
8. Get faculty and staff out of their classrooms and offices.
During the annual After Office Hours event, the University of Kentucky’s Office of Residential Life invites faculty and staff from across campus into residence halls to engage with students. “Attendees discuss various topics, such as campus resources and adjusting to college life, as well as students’ aspirations, interests and needs,” says Whitney Hale, deputy public relations director. “These events allow first-year students a chance to build relationships with faculty and staff early in their college career.” Two hundred students in 12 residence halls participated this fall.
Institutions could offer faculty and staff professional development opportunities such as attending mentoring-related conferences.
9. Recognize the time commitment for faculty and staff to mentor.
The concept of helping students on a deep level is problematic because it isn’t built into job descriptions (or the tenure process). “Universities need to reward mentoring and advising,” says Jack, adding that one way to do it is to “provide opportunities where you’re not in the classroom or the office, where you can break bread with students.”
Melinda Ickes, an associate professor at Kentucky and one of four faculty members honored with a 2021 Excellent Undergraduate Research Mentor Award from the Office of Undergraduate Research, agrees that more thought needs to be put into how college and university employees could find time to mentor. “Think about the infrastructure, whether it’s compensation or designated time for those involved in mentoring,” she says.
Institutions could offer professional development opportunities such as attending mentoring-related conferences, too.
With dozens of students getting frequent guidance from her, Ickes has found it helpful to have advising meetings and conversations on a single day of week -- and to reflect often on how mentoring is a positive part of her life. She says, “I try to remember what joy it brings me to work with these students and how I grow every week.”
Read about more results from the Student Voice survey on mentoring.