The Gallup Purdue Great Jobs, Great Lives report has shed light that mentorship is clearly vital and necessary to the development of college students. According to this report,
“Graduates who felt ‘supported’ during college (that professors cared, professors made them excited about learning, and had a mentor) are nearly three times as likely to be thriving than those who didn’t feel supported.”
Students who were mentored in college also had higher levels of work engagement than students who were not mentored.
Since this report was published, many universities and departments have attempted to implement their own internal mentor program. Getting mentors, providing the proper content, matching the right students with the right mentors, and establishing a plan for the mentorship to continue is difficult in and of itself, and many schools have struggled with properly implementing it. Getting students involved with the program is one of the most important parts of a mentorship program, and it is more often the most neglected part. In interviews with multiple schools that have attempted to implement their own internal mentorship programs, nearly all of them expressed a struggle to engage students to become mentees.
This may seem somewhat odd, considering all of the benefits that students clearly receive from having a mentor, but this is what has been happening with many mentorship programs. To help understand why this is the case, here are a few reasons why student mentees don’t immediately pounce at many mentorship programs.
- The students have no clue that it exists
In interviews with a few hundred students at one of the largest universities in the US, we learned that the majority of students didn’t know that their school offers free health services, content on how librarians can help them and interlibrary loans, library journal subscriptions, writing centers, mental health services and international/domestic peer programs. All of these programs are extremely beneficial and available to students (and are consistently available at many large institutions and have been for years), but the students aren’t aware of their existence. Some universities have even made required projects that forced the use of these services, advertised these services on school buses, and brought guest speakers to speak about these services and students still don’t acknowledge their existence.
2. Mentorship is posed as a career development opportunity as opposed to an educational opportunity
Many mentorships blossom into job offers and work relationships. However, these further opportunities typically did not occur because students perceived that mentorship as leading into a job. They come from students genuinely enjoying the company and advice of their mentor, and wanting to continue their relationship with the mentor. Students put on a façade of professionalism when they are presented with an interview-like opportunity and feel like they have to not “look dumb” or seem like they are keeping up with everything a professional is saying so as to make themselves as hirable as possible. This is the exact opposite of what a mentorship should be. Students should have the goal of asking as many questions as one can in order to learn the most and grow as a person. Mentors seek vulnerability in a student mentee. Mentors don’t expect an 18-22 year old to know every facet of their career (that is why the student is the mentee!). Vulnerability is desirable because a student who asks questions and shows a willingness to learn is much more hirable than a student who doesn’t ask any questions.
Furthermore, if students are informed that mentorship is a career development opportunity, students that have job offers or believe they have a job lined up won’t pursue mentorships. Vice versa, it creates an environment where only students desperate for a job will want to be mentored and will act in a way referenced in the previous paragraph. This outcome is not valuable for the mentor or the student, and more often than not will leave all parties involved feeling extremely dissatisfied.
3. The fear of missing out
A student doesn’t want to be the only person doing something that everyone isn’t doing. On the contrary, students want to keep up with whatever their peers are doing. Therefore, to get a mentorship program to work at a university, it has to become popular to do. Students cannot perceive themselves as exclusive or too good to be mentored or else it won’t catch on with other students. Getting the initial students to become mentees is difficult because schools are posing students with a relatively scary proposition: go have a conversation with a stranger about your career. Many students struggle to know what they want in a career entering their senior year, let alone freshman to junior years. For a student, having a conversation with a stranger can be nerve-wracking in and of itself, combined with talking to a professional about career paths when the student himself maybe hasn’t considered career paths can be a lot.
Overall, creating a mentorship program within a university is difficult. To properly engage students in a mentorship program there needs to be a clear and proven plan to inform the students, portray mentorship as mentorship and not career development, and have a strategy for popularizing mentorship. This article hopefully can serve as a reference to help others with some of the struggles faced when attempting to grow a mentorship program.