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The Importance of Helping Students Find Mentors in College

The Importance of Helping Students Find Mentors in College

by Leo M. Lambert

The 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, Mentoring College Students to Success, provides a treasure trove of useful data for institutions that are serious about helping students make the most of their undergraduate years.

For 19 years, I was president of Elon University, an institution that is deeply committed to an engaged and experiential approach to undergraduate education, and a recognized national leader in high-impact, relationship-rich learning practices such as study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, writing across the curriculum and first-year seminars. I am also a coauthor of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most (Jossey-Bass, 2016). It is my view that the work of Gallup and its partners over the past four years has focused needed and renewed attention on key dimensions of the collegiate experience, especially at a time in our nation's history when political leaders and many members of the public at large are questioning the value of college.

The 2018 Alumni Survey builds upon the often-cited 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index report (now the Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey), which showed a strong relationship between key experiences in college and outcomes after graduation, such as engagement at work and personal well-being. My summary of the 2014 study's headline message is one I wish was being shouted from more rooftops: The quality of your collegiate experience will make a meaningful difference in the quality of your life!

In brief, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index report defined two crucial categories of experiences to which all students should aspire. First, it underscored the importance of mentors who care about students as persons, make them excited about learning and encourage them to pursue their goals and dreams. Second, the report examined the importance of these crucial experiences: jobs or internships that allow students to apply classroom learning; projects that take a semester or more to complete (such as a thesis or capstone project); and engagement in extracurricular activities and organizations.

The 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey takes a deeper dive on important aspects of mentoring. Below I offer some personal reflections on implications of these new data, both for students and for those of us responsible for delivering a high-quality, challenging and meaningful collegiate experience.

An insufficient percentage of students are receiving high-quality mentoring. While 25% of Strada-Gallup respondents "strongly agree" and 18% "agree" that they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams, that glass is not even half full. We in higher education should hold ourselves to higher expectations. We need to begin by explicitly telling students that one of the most lasting and important elements of the college experience is to cultivate what W. Brad Johnson terms a "mentoring constellation" -- a set of relationships formed over time to provide guidance and feedback at crucial moments and to encourage reflection. Students must be helped to appreciate that after college is over, these relationships will matter most. Too often, students approach potential mentoring opportunities as merely transactional -- seeking an adviser's approval for course registration, for example -- rather than engaging in bigger questions about intellectual interests and about life and career goals.

Some students need clear guidance on how to find mentors. Mentoring relationships are a form of social capital. I suspect that students with college-educated parents and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds come to college with more experience in mining this type of social capital -- a big leg up on their peers. The Strada-Gallup data bear this out, with 72% of white students citing a professor as a mentor in college, compared with only 47% from racially underrepresented students. Similarly, first-generation students are less likely than students with a college-educated parent to have had a professor as a mentor.

Finding mentors is a taught and learned human behavior, and colleges should leave nothing to chance in this regard. Many students need to be "coached up" on how to approach faculty members after class and take advantage of faculty office hours. They need to be helped to understand that many faculty members are delighted to have a conversation over coffee to talk about students' intellectual and career interests. Sometimes such mentoring conversations have an immediate, powerful impact -- like empowering students to pursue an academic course of study that they truly love. At other times, they may blossom into an intellectual partnership that will endure for decades. And, of course, greater faculty and staff diversity increases the chances that all students will establish these important bonds.

Some programs, like Elon University's Odyssey Scholars program for talented, first-generation college students with high financial need, assign both a peer and a faculty mentor at the beginning of students' academic careers, ensuring that they have knowledgeable, supportive resources at the ready. Odyssey Scholars persist and flourish and, in fact, graduate at a higher rate than the student body as a whole.

My instincts tell me there is a strong connection between the reported level of academic challenge students experience and the strength of mentoring relationships students form with faculty. The 2018 Strada-Gallup data demonstrate that students who "strongly agree" that they were academically challenged in college are 2.4 times more likely to say college was worth the cost and 3.6 times more likely to say they were prepared for life outside of college. My two decades of observation as a college president tell me that students seek challenge from (and work extra hard for) faculty members whom they hold in high esteem and who provide the right balance of challenge and support. These are precisely the faculty to whom students are naturally drawn to form a deeper, longer-term relationship, such as a thesis adviser or a mentor on a major project. It is important and useful to think of mentoring, academic challenge and overall satisfaction with college as highly interconnected constructs.

College can be mystifying for many students, especially for those with no family history of attending. The findings of Gallup and its partners over the past four years underscore the key, and often hidden, message about what is most important for students to know before they arrive on campus: Come to college expecting to actively seek out mentors who will challenge you to grow in wonderful and unexpected ways, and who will give you the guidance and support necessary for your success in college and in life.


Leo M. Lambert is President Emeritus and Professor at Elon University.

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