Every college wants to boost diversity on campus. Every college wants to help their students succeed in the classroom and after graduation. And in our COVID era of disrupted learning, every college wants to help students build stronger relationships.
Higher education leaders are increasingly offering mentoring programs as a solution for all three of these challenges. Well-designed mentoring programs that have wide institutional support can make colleges more welcoming to students from all backgrounds, help students prosper, and make real and lasting connections.
When faculty and staff mentor students, they can offer a glimpse into the unspoken rules of college. Academic life requires knowledge that may not be readily available, especially to first-generation college students.
As someone who has developed mentoring programs for 21 years, I’ve noted that some leaders don’t fully grasp all the work that goes into successful mentoring. You can’t simply expect older students, alumni volunteers or faculty and staff to show up ready to be a mentor. Mentoring, like teaching, is a learned skill and does not have a one-size-fits-all approach.
When mentoring programs fail, students feel their time has been wasted. At worst, they can feel alienated and are left thinking the college doesn’t understand them. Failed mentoring opportunities actually exacerbate the issues these programs were designed to solve.
So how should colleges go about designing mentoring programs? Here are six strategies that colleges can use to support their students:
Mentor training is required every step of the way
Colleges should design training for mentors before they are matched with students, and then continue checking in with both mentors and students throughout the relationship.
Focus on effective communication, including active listening, and the need for a mutually agreed upon method of communication. Meeting a minimum of four hours per month is a good goal. Discussing how to best coordinate these meetings should be addressed during training to avoid pitfalls due to scheduling issues.
Training should also foster introspection. Ask, “Why are you choosing to serve as a mentor or to become a student mentee?”
Trust is key
We focus so much on communication because it is key to trust—which is key to any successful pairing. When there is trust established between pairs, it is important to continue to “show up” for the student mentee for the duration of the program.
It is important to be keenly aware that if communication is not consistent, student mentees might hesitate to reach out to the mentor with a concern that they are a “bother” to the mentor which can impact the progress that pairs have begun to make. These are critical areas for exploration during training.
Preparing culturally responsive mentors
Not all pairs will resemble each other, in their history or identities, so having genuine conversations about what makes them different requires the support of a skilled facilitator and trainer. Training to be culturally responsive requires an openness about one’s own bias, experiences, and perceptions.
Culturally responsive mentoring helps us ask questions that we do not know the answers to about racial and social justice issues which have always existed yet have become more visible in recent years. Mentors can serve better and help to meet students’ needs with the training that equips them to have difficult conversations, helping them to “get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” This can be significant to students as they adjust to college life and sends the message that “I see you, I hear you,” ensuring that we put active listening and responsiveness into practice.
Training also helps would-be mentors understand that they might be bringing a deficit view to their work. For example, not all BIPOC students are from low-income backgrounds: Listening and learning from what students choose to share with you about their lived experiences is what we should adhere to. This understanding will help guide what resources mentors direct them to.
If students are from low-income backgrounds, it could be appropriate for a mentor to initiate financial literacy discussions (including responsibilities for loans) and connect their mentee to experts in this area from the financial services office of an institution.
Show students possibilities
For many students, networking, career exploration, job shadowing, and placement are a big reason to join a mentoring program. They also provide opportunities for growth and self-discovery. But these opportunities often only happen if a faculty or staff mentor is willing to serve as a bridge between students and key connections across the institution and beyond.
Partnerships with internal and external partners are equally important to helping students enter the job market to pursue their careers. The mentoring program itself should encourage and lead these efforts by sharing opportunities for pairs to participate together based on the expressed interests of the student mentee.
Help pairs stay connected
Encouraging pairs to meet outside of any prescribed meeting times for the program is key and should be reiterated throughout the program.
In the midst of a global pandemic, which prevented in-person meetings, creative and innovative ways to meet virtually became a necessity—and many pairs are better off having added video chats or texts to their communication plan. A call or email between established times with a warm hello proves helpful to address feelings of isolation.
Create a culture of mentoring within the school
Hopefully, by now it’s clear that mentoring programs don’t thrive on their own.
If a college wants the benefits of a mentoring program, its leaders must believe that all students have the ability to succeed when given access to the right tools. And they have to back that commitment up with funding, including for staff, who can ensure mentors are trained and supported to help students find those tools.
Chotsani Williams West leads Adelphi University’s Mentoring Program and serves as the university’s executive director for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.