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A male counselor speaks with a female client.

One key to successful mentorship is not only being aware of a student’s major or affiliations on campus but also taking the time to dig deeper and ask questions about their free time or hobbies. Besides strengthening connections, this practice helps advisers to be more intentional in placing students in extracurriculars where they can use their skills and abilities.

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Professors and staff members who lead student organizations can join student success efforts on campus through successful and intentional mentorship of learners.

A 2021 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan found 45 percent of students lacked a mentor and 55 percent of students who don’t have a mentor don’t know how to find one. Those who did have a mentor were more likely to be from private high schools, attending four-year colleges or attend a private nonprofit college.

In a Sept. 14 webinar hosted by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities, former administrator and leadership coach Kathy Graves Farley shared best practices for mentoring and common pitfalls to avoid.

Mentors who are the most successful:

  • Know their why. Advisers have the power to change students’ lives, so it’s important to center working with students on a personal mission or philosophy for student success. 
  • Build trust. Successful mentorships rely on connection between mentor and mentee. Advisers can build trust with their students through demonstrating care in interactions with them and having an open-door policy.
  • Invest in students’ interests. While advisers may be aware of a student’s major or affiliations on campus, mentors should take the time to dig deeper and ask questions about their free time or hobbies. This can aid in organizational development, as well, because advisers can be more intentional in placing students where they can use their skills and abilities for the common goal. 
  • Are proactive. Mentors should prioritize cognitive skill development through co-curricular activities. Group projects or assignments that require creativity can promote personal growth and belonging among members. Student organizations can serve as a training ground for students to learn integral skills for their careers and lives after graduation, so advisers should act as coaches rather than orchestrators.
  • Build toward success. Student group participation can be a key factor in retention of learners. Keeping students involved and identifying when they may be struggling with personal challenges can help anchor students on campus and retain them.
  • Celebrate wins. Setting reasonable goals and acknowledging the contributions made and milestones achieved is great for mentees but can also give a mental and emotional lift to the adviser.
  • Meet students where they are. College students often encounter struggles while enrolled, juggling parenting, basic needs insecurity, employment (or unemployment), family pressures, or mental health concerns. Mentors can serve as a resource to those students, connecting them with on- or off-campus services, and stay aware of changes in behavior that may signal distress.

Often, mentors are untrained or underprepared to take on the challenges associated with supporting a student in an interpersonal relationship. Farley shared four pitfalls advisers should avoid when working with students.

  1. Enabling versus advising. An enabling adviser solves problems for students, but an adviser should give suggestions. Farley encourages mentors to “let mentees fall forward” and support them through the challenges while still giving them the opportunity to make safe mistakes.
  2. Too much information. Advisers should avoid overwhelming students with too many hard conversations or making the environment stressful. Instead, information should be divided and distributed in ways that make sense, either in multiple meetings or in written format like email or texts.
  3. One-size-fits-all. Not all mentees want or need the same things from their mentors. Instead, advisers should stay creative and be an investigator into the lives of students, understanding their different routines, unique talents and vocations.
  4. Not caring for themselves. Supporting students can take a toll on a mentor’s mental health. To manage stress, advisers should practice time management, engage in self-care and get support for themselves.

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