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As a college president, I often sit down to talk with alumni, and the first thing they share is a story about how a relationship with a faculty member impacted their life. Faculty mentorship matters. In fact, the most recent Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey found that having a faculty mentor in college doubles the odds of a person being engaged professionally and thriving in their life.

At its core, faculty mentorship involves caring about, connecting with and catalyzing students. Mentorship by a faculty member focuses on building a relationship that reaches beyond academic planning. It includes helping students reflect upon and integrate their various learning experiences, as well as caring for and impacting students’ personal and professional growth. It is about helping students start a long process of becoming the architects of their lives.

On its most basic level, faculty mentorship is a relationship between a more experienced mentor and a less experienced student, where a faculty member focuses on the student’s academic, personal and professional growth. In doing so, a faculty member shares with the student the mentor’s expertise, provides guidance and support, and serves as a role model for the student. The goal is to help students develop the skills, values, habits, networks and experiences needed to achieve their own goals. A lot of the impact of mentorship comes from creating reflective moments that help students learn from their curricular, co-curricular and other experiences.

Mentorship also is fluid and, at its best, collaborative. As it may often entail guidance provided by a variety of people in a variety of roles, the group of potential mentors for any one student necessarily shifts over time. And yet, among the many mentors a student might have, a faculty mentor plays a special and powerful role.

This point is important and stands in contrast to the traditional model of the "one great mentor/guru" myth. Students often have a group, network or circle of people, each of whom provides specific forms of guidance.

Fostering Faculty Mentorship

Mentorship is organic. It occurs when the right relationships emerge at the right moment. Like all relational processes, the form and substance vary according to a range of factors. Faculty members are likely to mentor differently based on their own personal attributes, as well as their academic disciplines and departments. Faculty members may mentor differently at different times of their professional careers, too. And of course, how they mentor will vary based on the student whom they are trying to connect with and catalyze.

We can, however, foster the conditions under which mentorship is more likely to emerge: 1) when faculty members are focused on undergraduates and committed to teaching, 2) classes are small and interactive, and 3) students are able to get to know a range of faculty members.

To truly create an ecosystem of mentorship, other conditions are also important. For example: mentorship emerges more often when:

  • Students interact with faculty members around shared interests, especially intellectual and/or academic interests. Most mentorship occurs in office hours and labs, through undergraduate research opportunities and experiential components of courses, and other venues where students and faculty members have a chance to share their intellectual interests.
  • Interactions take place over a sustained period of time. Of course, a single conversation can be transformational for students. In some ways, we know that a single interaction with a faculty member can make the difference in a student’s experience. But most mentorship occurs as relationships develop. Faculty members get to know students, and students get to know faculty. Trust develops. Moments present themselves where faculty members can push students to reflect upon and evaluate their thinking. Learning unfolds.
  • There is a culture of mentorship, and students are encouraged to be open to it. Students have to do their part. Mentorship is not one-directional. The success of any mentoring relationship depends on the willingness of a person to be mentored. One of the interesting questions for me is: How do we help students learn how to be mentored or to take advantage of the mentoring opportunities they have in college?
  • Ongoing professional development efforts facilitate conversations about mentoring. We need venues to continually share data on our students, the issues they are facing and what we know about mentoring different students differently. As part of this work, we need to find ways for faculty members to interact with student development professionals on a more regular basis to trade information about our students and campus dynamics. We also need more venues in which to share best practices.

Colleges and universities can put these principles into practice in a variety of ways. Three great starting places are:

  • having small and interactive classes throughout a student’s experience;
  • offering high impact practices like first-year seminars, undergraduate research, off-campus excursions and capstone experiences; and
  • encouraging faculty members who have interesting -- even outside-the-box -- ideas. At Denison University, that has included supporting a professor who wanted to start a fencing program and two faculty members who created a monthly mentoring group for women of color.

What Mentorship Is Not

Mentoring is not the same as friendship. It should be focused on some aspect, or multiple aspects, of a student’s academic success, personal growth and professional launching. Unlike friendship, the value is contingent on the mentor’s ability to achieve a desired end -- which, in this case, is student development and success. Another way to put this is that advisers and mentors are intentional about helping students learn what they need to attain their personal and professional goals.

Mentorship is also not crisis management. Some of our students will face crises while in college, including health challenges, family issues and a range of other crises. Colleges need faculty members to help identify when students are in crisis, as well as to help students find the right person at the college who can help them manage the crisis.

In addition, a faculty member can’t be all things to a student. Ideally, students should have a network of mentors, because no one person can be an expert in all areas. Nor is it reasonable to expect that one person’s expertise will be relevant at all stages of a student’s experience.

The other interesting question is how mentorship differs from advising. There is a tendency to want to draw clear distinctions between faculty advising and mentorship. But that is unwise or, at least, not helpful in a practical sense. In some ways, advising and mentorship are different, as more traditional academic advising can be reduced to the task of helping students stay on track to graduate. But the best advising is a form of mentorship. Of course, faculty advisers often form relationships that evolve into mentoring relationships.

That said, not all advising relationships will become mentoring relationships. Mentorship depends on the existence of the right sort of relationship, and the creation of this relationship is organic and two-sided. We always want, need and expect faculty to be excellent advisers in the traditional sense and to be open to -- and perhaps excited about -- the possibility that those advising relationships will evolve into mentoring relationships. Stated differently, faculty members don’t play two distinct roles, adviser and mentor, but rather engage in relationships that develop in different ways or at different speeds. Some of those relationships stay at a stage where the faculty member’s role is best captured as adviser, while others grow in ways that the role is best described as mentor.

My experience as a faculty member, administrator and now president leads me to believe that creating a strong ecosystem of mentorship on our campuses is one of the most powerful things we could and should do to enhance undergraduate learning. We should put it front and center. In their wonderful book, How College Works, Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs state, “People, far more than programs, majors or classes, are decisive in students’ experience of college … A great mentor -- a trusted adult adviser, if one can be found, adds a tremendous advantage.”

In all the debates and conversations swirling around higher education about the value of what we do, I would urge us to talk more about mentorship. In particular, we should focus on the importance of faculty mentorship, and the role such mentoring plays in helping students develop the skills, values, habits, networks and experiences needed to be the architects of their own lives.

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