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When Lisa T. transferred to a four-year university to complete a bachelor’s degree in social work, she found herself needing a mentor to help her stay on course, despite a stellar track record up to that point. As a first-generation student who also worked while she was in college, Lisa, like many students, found that she needed the support a mentor could provide to get her from enrollment to graduation.
“Having a mentor has no doubt been a major factor in my decision to press on in times of trial and burnout,” she says.
Lisa, who is now a graduate student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, has seen her share of tough times, but her mentor helped her manage her stress and keep her goals within reach.
“I wanted to quit twice because I was just not feeling it anymore and I didn’t feel like I was ‘getting it’ at all,” she says. Fortunately, Lisa found someone to help her stay on track, complete her undergraduate degree, and even start graduate school.
Reasons for Mentoring
Mentors can help you identify and develop your strengths and interests. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, respondents ranked the following as the top reasons they seek advice from someone they find inspiring:
- Goal clarification and focus
- Career exploration
- To develop an academic plan for the semester
Most schools and programs require that students meet with an advisor, counselor, or professor early on, and regularly. These conversations are a form of mentoring.
Dr. Jennifer Schnellmann has worked with hundreds of students in her role as an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. As she notes, “Longitudinal planning is key. I tell [students] to look down the road several years and honestly evaluate whether their habits of today are putting them on the path they really want tomorrow.”
She also asks many questions of her mentees to help them identify what they are working toward and what they need to achieve their goals. “Is it a medical or engineering degree? Is it a great network of colleagues and training opportunities? Is it living in a certain region? There is real truth to emulating today the person you want to be in the future, and this makes goal setting and goal achieving more pleasant and attainable,” Dr. Schnellmann advises.
Mentors can also help you connect with opportunities that otherwise may feel out of reach. Working with someone you admire to refine your interests and skills is a form of networking.
Mentors also provide support when you lose focus, feel pressured, or need strategies for developing new skills. Jason Henry, coordinator of academic advising at Arkansas State University-Beebe, visits with students one on one to keep them motivated to achieve their goals. He often provides them with advice and support when they experience both academic and personal challenges.
“Setting and achieving goals is like climbing a ladder; to reach the top you must climb one rung at a time. If spaced too far apart or out of order, [the ladder to your goal] is either too hard or impossible to climb.” He also tells students, “Don’t be in any rush to reach the top because you might miss a rung or fall off. Rather, take your time to appreciate the climb and enjoy the view.”
Finding a Mentor
Because college students often feel pulled in many directions at once, it should be no surprise that 64 percent of the respondents in the Student Health 101 survey indicated that lack of time was a barrier to finding a mentor. However, making the time to find one will pay off in the long run by minimizing the negative effects of stress.
Plus, it’s not as difficult or time-consuming as it sounds. As Henry suggests, “A mentor can be anyone at your college or in your community you look up to and admire.”
In the same Student Health 101 survey, of those students who have had a mentor, 55 percent said they looked to professors while 41 percent indicated they worked with a more experienced student.
Henry’s advice is to “look for someone who possesses the skills and characteristics you desire: a professor, community leader, or professional. Mentors are like tour guides—they have traveled the road to success before and understand the many bumps, pitfalls, and curves.”
More ideas on finding a mentor
Someone you admire or who inspires you, even if he or she doesn’t share your major or field of interest, can make an excellent mentor as well. Sometimes having the perspective of someone pursuing another area can broaden your view of what you want and how to get there. You may want to find multiple mentors so you can gather different kinds of guidance.
Mentors Help You Strategize
A good mentor can help you address overcommitting or choosing a goal that doesn’t fit your values or passion.
“Know when to say ‘no,’” says Steve Piscitelli, a professor of history at Florida State College at Jacksonville, who also teaches students how to set realistic, achievable goals in his student success class.
“Overcommitting and constantly running to catch up, beat the clock, or make the due date is a recipe for eventual disappointment or worse—for you and others who depend on you. In other words: priority management!” advises Professor Piscitelli.
Some students also aren’t honest with themselves or their mentors about what goals they really want to achieve. This may be due to pressures from parents or others. Dr. Schnellmann tries to “identify [if] a student has ended up in our program due to the goals of parents and not [their own] goals,” she explains.
“No matter how motivated you are, there will be days when everything is due, you are emotional, and flat worn out. These days are the times when that mentor is going to remind you of the prize at the end; and if you are anything at all like me, you will find the strength to at least be willing to finish that semester and see how [you] feel then,” Lisa T. says.
She still uses “the wisdom, support, and motivation [gained from the relationship] to keep going when really I feel like giving up.”
And as Melody Y., a senior at Rice University in Texas, notes, “Even mentors have mentors. Current professors, professionals, and experts still rely on their[s] from time to time! So it is worth the investment.”
How to make the most of a mentoring relationship
- Identifying clear goals for your conversations.
- Asking questions. There is no such thing as a “stupid” question for a mentor.
- Listening actively, taking notes, and clarifying next steps.
- Communicating regularly: in person, by email, or by phone. Ask your mentor which method they prefer and if there are times when they will not be available.
- Being appreciative. Thank your mentor for the time he or she has invested in you.
- Consider how a mentor can help you. You may need support:
- Developing goals
- Exploring a career direction
- Staying focused
- Making an academic plan
- Connecting with people outside your regular circle
- Identify a mentor you find inspiring: anyone from a teammate to a professor.
- Look to your mentor for guidance and motivation.
- Be honest with your mentor about your challenges and true goals.
- Consider being a mentor to someone else!
Get help or find out more
National Mentoring Partnership
College Success Foundation