Most college students don’t have a mentor and don’t know how to find one. Only 25% of students strongly agree they’ve had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. Of that 25%, 64% say that mentor was a professor. Only 10% say that mentor was a college or university staff member (according to a Strada-Gallup survey of 5,100+ college graduates). In order for students to develop a sense of belonging, succeed academically, complete their degrees, and take meaningful career steps, having a mentor is essential.
Students greatly benefit from regular, continuous interaction with mentors who have been in their shoes before. The right mentor(s) can be a gold mine of advice for students every step of the way, from admission to graduation to career development. Mentorship can be especially beneficial for first-year students navigating college for the first time, first-generation students with no previous parental experience to glean from, or minority students who are historically underrepresented. According to a Strada-Gallup survey, “Prior research has suggested that mentees seek mentors with similar experiences and backgrounds, and that minority students often seek mentors of the same race/ethnicity and find information more helpful when their mentor is of the same race/ethnicity.”
Finding the Right Mentor
Seeking out a mentor can be intimidating, and students don’t have to do it on their own. While connecting with a mentor requires students to be proactive, colleges and universities have a responsibility to be a bridge between mentors and mentees. Most institutions already have the resources to offer formal mentoring programs and, at the same time, cultivate an environment where informal mentoring relationships are possible between students and advisors, professors, and alumni.
Many schools have a variety of mentoring programs available, like first-generation student mentoring at MIT and Manhattan Marymount College and a comprehensive network of major, career, gender, and interest-specific mentors at Texas A&M, Pomona College, and UCLA. Many universities also provide peer mentoring programs to help new students connect with students who are a bit older or farther along in their college career, which facilitates a sense of connection and belonging among those setting foot on campus for the first time.
Mentorship makes the college experience much richer. A one-on-one connection with someone who knows your name, face, and goals is transformational and encourages persistence, academic resilience, and optimism about the future. When it comes to formal mentoring programs, universities must ensure the network of mentors are respectful, diverse, available, good listeners, empathetic, and truly committed to helping students reach their goals. Ideally, students should have the opportunity to connect with a mentor for advice or support whenever they need it. Getting in touch should be simple. Avoid barriers like long wait times, forms, or complicated scheduling systems that minimize a mentor’s approachability.
Multiple Mentors Are Better Than One
Several years ago, author and CEO Anthony Tjan gave a TED Talk on mentorship, specifically, the five types of mentors everyone needs in their life. We don’t recommend colleges and universities restructure their mentorship programs to provide every student with each type of mentor—that would be impossible. This list is simply a guide for understanding what mentorship could look like on a college campus and how professors, advisors, faculty, and peers can play different roles in a student’s life.
- The master of craft – These are the experts in a student’s field of interest. An engineering professor. A graduate student who’s a journalism TA. An alumnus working at consulting firm. These people have wisdom and experience to help students succeed academically, hone their skills in a particular field, and make smart career moves.
- The champion – These are the people who advocate for students and encourage them toward their goals. This could be a professor, advisor, career counselor, faculty member, or even a parent who believes in the student and recognizes their potential. They can often help students form connections with others and build a personal network.
- The copilot – These are usually peers or colleagues who hold each other accountable, collaborate with one another, and support each other’s endeavors. It could be a classmate, an older student, a fellow summer intern, etc. Mutual support and encouragement can go a long way to help students stay engaged and feel like they belong.
- The anchor – These are friends, family members, or anyone who knows a student well enough to be a listening ear and provide counsel as needed. Tjan says, “We’re all going to hit speed bumps and go through uncertainty in life. So we need someone who can give us a psychological lift and help us see light through the cracks during challenging times.”
- The reverse mentor – As students journey through college, they can turn around and support new students walking the same path they once did. This is where peer mentoring programs come into play and give students the chance to give back. Older students have valuable information and advice to share as well as things they wish they knew when they started school.
Every student has unique needs, and one person likely can’t support them in every area. Every student has unique motivations and learning styles as well—one student might need a master-of-craft mentor while another needs an anchor in their current season of life. It’s important to provide students with access to a variety of people who can support them in different ways. Supporting the whole student is key.