Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite opinion writers for the New York Times, recently wrote an op-ed discussing some research done by Gallup. This research points to a number of crucial experiences that aid in a successful transition into the workforce, i.e., students that have these experiences not only get jobs but are engaged and have higher levels of personal well-being.
One of these crucial experiences is having a mentor. Interesting, right? Seems intuitive. But what exactly is it about having a mentor that makes this transition easier for students?
How Mentors Help
Mentors are important for a couple of reasons. Having a person who cares about you, encourages you, and provides constructive criticism is important. This helps students get excited about what they're learning and connects them with the larger community (professors, graduate students, business leaders, etc.). In addition, it forces students to become comfortable talking and interacting within a professional setting, which improves communication skills.
Being involved with a mentor also facilitates deep learning – another crucial experience Gallup recognizes. Through working with a mentor -- experts and professionals in their fields -- students gain a great deal of practical experience and get to test out whether or not they enjoy a particular sector.
I experienced this personally at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During my time in that wonderful place I was mentored for three years by a professor in the Political Science Department. My mentor guided me along, but also allowed me, through independent projects, to fail and succeed on my own. This taught me a great deal about academic research, editing, and journal formatting. And, most importantly, I became considerably more comfortable on campus and in class.
If this is such a valuable experience, why aren’t more college students involved with mentors?
The numbers aren't pretty.
Only 22% of college grads reported having a mentor while in school; an experience that helps students thrive on campus and develop the skills necessary for maintaining well-being and engagement in the workforce.
This is a pretty bleak picture.
Mentors can help, especially in a job market where there is an ever-increasing need for specialization. Students should be able to support their traditional education with practical experiences that get them engaged on campus, excited about learning -- both of which are key parts of a liberal education -- as well as involved in hands-on experience.
This is part of an education. It supplements one’s classes and engages one in a different, but equally important, kind of learning. This practical learning helps prepare those entering the workforce, an increasingly complex workforce, with clearly applicable and developed skills as well as familiarity within a professional setting.
Now that you know why mentors are important, you might be wondering what a good mentors program looks like. Don’t worry, just keep reading.
Fordham University’s Mentors Program
Throughout researching the value of mentors I came across Fordham University’s Mentors Program. It struck me as impressive, so I decided to get more information by reaching out to Laura Greenbaum of Fordham’s Office of Career Services.
She subsequently sent us an overview of the program, the goal of which is twofold:
Help the Mentee develop socially, professionally, and intellectually
Build lasting relationships between mentee, mentor, and institution
At the beginning of the year the mentee is set up with an experienced alumni, the mentor. After the two parties agree upon a schedule that works for both of them, they can begin. Throughout the year-long program Fordham augments the agreed upon meetings with 4 Milestone Events, ranging anywhere from a Skills Workshop to taking in a Basketball Game.
One of the biggest issues Fordham faced at the beginning, and still faces, is overcommitment by students and mentors. As Mrs. Greenbaum says, “A lot of students sign up to participate and then realize that they have too much on their plate so they stop responding to their mentors, or the other way around.”
This will be a problem with any mentors program. Students are busy, mentors are busy. They have work, classes, and social lives. What we love about Fordham’s program is that it attempts to fix this problem by allowing for flexibility while simultaneously enforcing accountability. Both parties work out a convenient schedule together and these meetings are then reinforced by Milestone Events. In other words, the mentee and mentor can create a personalized schedule, which helps both sides avoid taking on too much responsibility.
While there are still kinks, Fordham’s program is definitely expertly designed and moving in the right direction!
For those of you who are thinking about starting, have already started, or are having trouble with your own mentors program, let me leave you with some wise words. Mrs. Greenbaum suggests that you take on a bite size chunk before expanding; begin with only a few participants and figure out what works well. You can then use what you have learned to expand and grow into a great program that will enrich and prepare your students!