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Did you know that January is National Mentoring Month? The celebrated practice of mentoring as a facet of successful educational programming has garnered its own annual celebration, as proclaimed by the White House, commemorating this first National Mentoring Month with an official statement from the President.
“By standing on the shoulders of mentors, young people have led America forward at each inflection point in our history,” the statement proclaimed.
From pre-teens to presidents, mentoring has been proven to be an essential part of any successful educational strategy. But so often the execution of mentoring strategy gets in the way of unlocking the power and impact of these important relationships. This month provides an opportunity for us to raise our awareness and commitment to unlocking the power of authentic and mutually beneficial mentoring relationships, which are essential for student engagement and success.
Two Pernicious Challenges
Within our campuses, we devote a great deal of time and resources to cultivating mentor relationships for our students by connecting them with alumni, professionals within their field, faculty and peer students. However, effective higher education mentoring is about more than a single program that can provide all of the resources and support our students need to be effective, develop key competencies and take full advantage of the college experience. This often means moving beyond one-dimensional definitions or traditional views of mentoring that sometimes reinforce the “perfect mentor myth” and focus on an unproductive debate over whether mentors versus sponsors are more important for career outcomes.
The Perfect Mentor Myth
One challenge impeding successful higher education mentorship programs is the Perfect Mentor Myth--the idea that there is a perfect mentor out there for everyone, and that if you can that find one perfect person to model your career on and you can convince them to take you under their wing, you will be successful. This concept limits your scope and prevents you from building a robust, dynamic network of mentors that can help you as your career and life goals shift.
Mentors vs. Sponsors
Some debate has arisen about the difference between mentors and sponsors, where a mentor may be a relationship you cultivate to help you network, where a sponsor is someone who is personally committed to your success and sees you as not only an opportunity to network but an opportunity for their own career as well. This debate can get in the way of building successful mentoring relationships as it creates needless division where there doesn’t need to be any. All effective business relationships are, in some ways, mutually beneficial, even if there isn’t a direct or clear link. Students should focus on building diverse business and educational relationships. Once they build robust networks, they can focus on learning to manage these relationships more effectively.
National Mentoring Month Official Video, 2021
The Three Ps of Mentoring
For decades, my colleagues and I have been studying and working with different organizations on how to enhance outcomes, engagement, career clarity and success using effective mentoring relationships. What I have learned from these many experiences reaffirms that mentoring is one of the most powerful tools we can use to support our students.
However, while well-intentioned, not all mentoring programs are equally effective or sustainable in terms of having a documented impact on student outcomes. I have discovered that the most effective mentoring efforts focus on three key things: purpose, process and participation.
#1: Mentoring Purpose
While we all know that mentoring is important, our efforts to facilitate effective mentoring relationships often struggle because they lack a well-defined purpose.
While this may seem obvious, mentoring is not about finding and cultivating one single relationship, but instead should come from a diverse portfolio of authentic, mutually beneficial developmental relationships. This means that mentoring is more than just a person’s title or program offering. Facilitating effective mentoring relationships requires a focused and sustained effort that includes ongoing conversations across our campuses to gain clarity and consensus about why mentoring is being used and for what purpose or desired outcomes.
If our goal is student engagement or inclusion or career clarity – then we must first understand that different types of mentoring efforts may be necessary to achieve these different goals. The challenge we face is to expand our thinking beyond mentoring as a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
This means understanding the many different relationships that are necessary to provide support for our students and to achieve desired outcomes. It also means understanding that there are many types of mentoring relationships that are necessary to support student engagement and success.
None of this can be accomplished without spending a significant amount of time reaching clarity and consensus on mentoring purposes.
#2: Mentoring Process
Also important for how we facilitate mentoring on our campuses is the mentoring process.
How we structure, support and evaluate mentoring opportunities for our students can critically alter their effectiveness. Too often, we select pre-existing programs that may or may not fit with the unique purpose of mentoring that we have determined for our students. Process means going beyond the launch of a single mentoring program to engage people in the work of creating a mentoring strategy and cultivating a mentoring culture.
Building an effective process requires a commitment to developing a mentoring culture that is encouraged, supported, valued and celebrated. We must shift our focus to how we can amplify mentoring on our campuses beyond individual efforts or single programs and recognize that the quality of the outcome begins with our ongoing commitment to the mentoring process.
#3: Mentoring Participation
Along with focusing on purpose and process, effective mentoring means that there is both diversity and inclusion in participation. Research is clear that mentoring is a critical tool that supports and facilitates diversity, equity and inclusion on our campuses.
However, informal mentoring often leaves out student segments who do not have access to closed networks, especially those based on social status, race, culture or family background. How we facilitate mentoring on our campuses can have a powerful impact on equalizing access to resources, support and opportunities. We cannot truly unlock the power of mentoring unless we are looking at the ways in which mentoring efforts on our campuses help to cut across traditional boundaries, break down barriers to access and facilitate relationships across differences.
Therefore, our efforts to use mentoring to support student success must be mindful of the ways in which mentoring serves as a tool to amplify diversity and inclusion in mentoring participation.
One of the valuable lessons that I have learned in my many years studying this topic is that mentoring is most effective when we unlock the power of authentic and inclusive relationships for our students. This means designing, implementing, and providing resources for not just a single mentoring program but building a campus culture that lives out the 2022 National Mentoring theme each and every year – mentoring amplifies connection.
As we continue to navigate through all of the challenges facing our campuses this year, let us remember the power of mentoring, not as another program offering, but as recognition of mentoring’s purpose, process and participation in facilitating student success and amplifying connections that will support our students this year and well into their futures.
Dr. Audrey Murrell, Ph.D.
Professor of Business Administration, University of Pittsburgh