Caution: Mentor Programs Need Guidance

By Peter Titlebaum posted 12-01-2020 07:42

December 1, 2020

by Peter Titlebaum and Drew Formentini  

Peter TitlebaumEd.D, is a professor at the University of Dayton. Drew Formentini holds an M.Ed. in School Counseling and B.S. in Sport Management from the University of Dayton. 

The ivory towers of education have a long history of providing mentoring to students on their college campuses. A growing new trend in mentoring involves college career services offices providing this service to students via willing alumni serving as mentors. While well intended, this can be a flawed approach.   

Let us explain why this can be problematic. Mentor programs are great in theory, and we encourage schools to establish themBoth the mentor and the mentee have to be prepared, however, and it’s important to understand what can go wrong if this critical step doesn’t take place.   

If done incorrectly, an alumni mentoring program can cause the school to appear to be passing on students who do not understand the process. It could disenfranchise alumni and turn off a current student. Mentoring should be approached as a serious endeavor, not just another feel-good community program. This is not a box that needs to be checked to advertise that your school provides this networking-type service.   

Besides current students, alumni are a school’s most valuable resource. Schools could not exist without these two groups. Current students bring in tuition and alumni frequently give back to the institution that helped them achieve success in their careers.  

It is not enough just to put these two valuable assets together and assume they know how to develop and maintain mentor/mentee relationships. What happens when things do not work out? The mentee is likely only doing this for a job down the road but needs to be educated in the value of the relationship and understand the impact this person could have on their lives. The mentor is looking to give back to the school, keep a link to the program that influenced his or her success, and, most importantly, influence a current student looking to find his or her way in the real world.  

A key component to consider for alumni is time. If the mentee is not prepared, unable to grasp the goals of the mentorship program, or not engaged fully in the process, mentors will be unable to support the student, resulting in a waste of their time and energy. While an alumni’s desire to give back to their alma mater is strong, a feeling of dissatisfaction could result from a disorganized and unprepared mentee.  

Do you recall getting your driver’s license? There were several things you were required to do before getting your driver’s license, however, even with all that is required of teenage drivers, they are often just adequate drivers. You might ask what this has to do with a mentor program. Think of all the steps we require of young drivers before they are legally able to drive. Parents are still willing to take educated risks with their cars and let their children drive them. We think schools should take the same care in preparing participants in their mentor program.   

As an educator for 27 years, and more time spent as a student, I [Peter Titlebaum] am qualified to speak on this topic. I have been happy to mentor my students over the years. To this day, I still have relationships with many former students. I even set up a formal mentoring program for my graduating seniors.   

Over the past two years, we matched graduating seniors with alumni from the Sport Management program at the University of Dayton. The program has had such success that 75% said they will keep working with the person even after the program is over.   

We spent a great deal of time preparing students. This was not just my effort but also the work of an alumnus, Drew Formentini, who graduated from the program 12 years earlier. This was his way of giving back to the program that positively influenced his professional career.  

The preparation of the students includes guidance on open-ended questions, how to learn more about alumni and their career paths, and general steps to take for the mentorship to be successful. This process took an entire semester.   

Mentors were educated with information about the program to prepare them for what they should expect from their mentees, how to support mentees who were struggling and check-ins throughout the semester to understand how their experience was progressing.   

The need to properly educate and prepare both mentees and mentors is critical to ensure the partnership is successful for both parties. For mentees, networking will likely be an ongoing skill they will refine over time.   

The learning process in a contained, low-pressure environment with a well-intentioned and prepared mentor ideally allows for mentees to share openly, as they are less likely to be judged and able to ask for and implement feedback and guidance from mentors supporting them in a myriad of ways. These include mock interviews, resume reviews and outreach to other professionals or contacts.  

Training and preparation for mentors is critical too. In addition to the importance of an alumni’s time, the ability to leverage years of experience, their networkand their desire to give back to their alma mater make this partnership worthwhile. It is highly likely they did not have this type of mentorship program when they were about to graduate. That allows them to understand the value for mentees. The outcomes from a successful mentorship are tangible for both parties: an improved resume, greater confidence while wading out of one’s comfort zone, and the ability to connect a friend or business partner with a candidate for an open position.  

Mentors bring their life experience to this mentee relationship by sharing how they handle job changes, giving advice on salary negotiations, and communicating understanding of the highs and lows of managing a career. These topics were part of class discussions and are impactful. We have found students appreciate getting this message from someone closer to their age.   

Without the foundational principles for both mentors and mentees in coordination with an active management of the mentor program, the mentorship program will likely not be as successful as it could be if it had standards and training to be effective. Additional support from either in a required mini-course or mentorship preparation class would make this a more worthwhile experience.  

Other components to make this type of program successful at the school level include metrics to properly track mentorship success stories—including how the partnership resulted in an internship, job interview, informational interview, or ideally a full-time position. Tracking could also include learnings on how to improve the matching process, how to incentivize mentee or mentor engagement, and how to leverage the required mentorship course so students ideally would take it more seriously. The importance of networking would also be valued throughout this process.  

The University of Dayton Sport Management Program started in 1986, but our mentor program is in its infancy, having launched just two years ago. Still, we understand the program is too important to only furnish students with the name of a contact and think they have the insight to build relationships without taught skills and guidance.   

We created a curriculum and fit it into the senior seminar class taken the fall of the student’s senior year. The reason we chose the fall semester was to give the students enough time to start thinking about their next step after college. Conducting mentorship during the mentees final semester, we found, caused the program to be rushed and the mentee lost sight of everything they needed to accomplish.  

The timing of this class is helpful for the students. It applies enough pressure to keep the goal in mind, but they also know they have time to manage the process. The mentors can guide the mentees through the first job or graduate assistant application process. This is a scary/exciting time for students especially as the real world comes more into focus as graduation approaches.   

The added confidence that graduating seniors gain because a mentor decided to invest them has made the next step in their lives a little less stressful. This mentor program does not happen organically. If schools are serious about having mentor programs, then invest time, instruction and tracking of outcomes so you can measure their effectiveness.   

We have gained success because we spent time teaching about the process and getting feedback along the way from both mentors and mentees. The assignments create touchpoints that increase chances of success. While we may never hit 100% retention, at least we know the majority build on mentor/mentee relationships at least a full semester after this class assignment.   

Key takeaways from our mentor/mentee experience 

  1.  Properly manage, supervise, and guide the process  
  2.  Build in touchpoints 
  3.  Train all participants 
  4.  Improve retention and success rate by leveraging classes or mini-courses 
  5.  Discuss the process with mentor to help them build the relationship