Mentoring Students

Most students at colleges and universities have academic advisers, which means that they have some support as they work their way toward a meaningful degree. But how many have mentors? Mentorship—a person-to-person relationship that goes beyond advising to help a student succeed not only intellectually but personally, not only within the walls of the institution but in their lives beyond those walls—can be a powerful and critical experience for the mentee and or the mentor.

The Argument for Mentorship

In his 2015 book On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty, US Naval Academy Psychology professor W. Brad Johnson outlines the many ways in which students benefit from mentoring, including an increased likelihood of staying in college and going on to graduate and a boost to academic performance while in school (as measured by GPA and credit hours completed). Mentoring also leads to higher student satisfaction, confidence, and strength of identity.

But the positive effects extend beyond the college years. According to an influential 2014 Gallup-Purdue study of college graduates, “if graduates recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams”—in other words, if these students received mentoring from a professor—“their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of their well-being.” And Johnson points to other positive post-degree outcomes, such as success in job searches, professional confidence, better work-life balance, career eminence, income, and more.

The bottom line is that mentoring does great things. Unfortunately—back to the Gallup-Purdue study—it’s also rarer than you might expect: while 63% of the surveyed alumni reported having had a professor in college who nurtured an excitement in learning, only 22% felt encouraged by a professor to pursue their dreams, and only 27% felt that their professors had cared about them as a person. Moreover, only 14% of the respondents felt that they’d had all three of these very powerful positive experiences.

If mentorship works, why aren’t we doing it more?

Barriers to Mentorship

Some of the barriers happen at the level of a department or an institution; it’s a rare school that really rewards mentorship when it comes to tenure, promotion, or salary decisions. Other issues are personal—not everyone gravitates to this kind of work. (See below in How to Mentor for more on what’s involved.)

For many faculty, however, the biggest issue is time. Given all your other responsibilities, how do you make time to give students this much attention? A few tips:

  • You don’t have to take on every person who comes to you for mentoring; commit to the people you really feel you can commit to.
  • Group Mentorship: Although many of these relationships develop one-on-one, some mentors create opportunities where they can meet with a variety of students simultaneously, in a lab or project setting or just in office hours or over coffee. This not only saves time but also fosters connections among students.
  • Constellation Mentorship: Don’t try to be all things for the students in your care; instead, share responsibility by helping the student find a variety of people they can reach out to for different needs: peers, more advanced students, other faculty members whose academic focus is different from yours but relevant to your mentee, people in administrative roles in the department or school, etc.
  • Small mentorship: Although being a full-on, long-term mentor is time-intensive, there are also small opportunities to do little things to support ongoing student development. Again according to the Gallup-Purdue poll, students benefit a great deal from professors who foster students’ excitement, encourage their aspirations, and demonstrate an interest in them as people. These are things you can do during class and in office hours.

Mentoring across difference—gender, race, sexual orientation, and other dimensions of identity—can also be daunting for some potential mentors. There might be concerns about a lack of shared experience or about uncomfortable conversations that could be difficult to navigate. And yet these relationships work, and we can’t wait for full expertise before we begin. Whether we directly engage in a conversation about difference or not—that’s really up to you and your mentee to decide—it’s important to get started. Given the gap between the demographics of faculty and students at institutions of higher education, and given the mounting demands on faculty of color and women, among others, our students won’t be able to get the mentoring they need unless all faculty take up the charge. Our page on Inclusive Pedagogy can help you develop strategies to make these relationships successful.

How to Mentor: A Balancing Act

Good mentorship requires the mentor to balance a range of important priorities:

  • Affirmation and Challenge: One of the most important things a mentor can do is encourage mentees to pursue their aspirations and bolster their sense of efficacy and confidence by pointing out their strengths. Just showing that you care, as the Gallup-Purdue study reminds us, is a big deal. But there will also be times when mentees need to be challenged so that they can demonstrate (mainly to themselves) what they’re capable of. If you’re mentoring a person who is nervous about public speaking but will need that skill going forward, push them to seize opportunities to practice; if your mentees are limiting their growth by making excessively “safe” choices about what they’re studying, you can nudge them out of their comfort zone; a mentee who has done something inappropriate or who has failed at a task needs to hear that from a trusted person: you.

  • About Them, About You: Mentoring is valuable in part because it allows mentees space where they can tell and develop their own stories, and where they can receive care—attention, support, information, opportunities, a person who goes to bat for them in public. At the same time, mentees benefit enormously when mentors bring their own stories into the conversation; mentors are, by definition, role models, and deliberate and thoughtful moments of self-disclosure can teach and reassure young people just starting out, and can make the relationship deeper and more productive. They also benefit from being connected to their mentor’s networks. At the same time, this isn’t actually a one-way relationship; mentors have a lot to gain from the experience of working closely with a mentee, including productive contact with fresh ideas and perspectives and chances to clarify and articulate your own views and goals. And self-care—in the form of being protective of your time, energy, and boundaries—is important for mentors. You can’t give if you’re depleted.

  • Bonds and Freedom: The mentoring bond is a powerful one; mentees come to rely on their mentors for advice, support, feedback, skill-building, insider information, and even professional opportunities. And yet at some point they need to strike out on their own, forge their own paths. Many strong such relationships endure, with the two people staying in contact for years to come, but the form of those relationships tends to change, from one of more asymmetry and dependence to something more collegial. The dynamic may remain somewhat asymmetrical, with you supplying more advice and support than them, but mentees coming to see themselves as your peers is a crucial development as they become their own authorities in their careers and lives more generally.

Resources at Georgetown

Although mentorship roles often develop organically, at many schools you can find more structured opportunities to put yourself in a mentor role. Here are a few examples of such opportunities at Georgetown:

Also keep in mind that at times, particularly when a student is in distress, you’ll want to turn to the Georgetown Safety Net for help.

Additional Resources

Please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.