By Beryl S. Jeffers, Ed.M.
Merriam Webster defines a mentor as a: a trusted counselor or guide. b: an influential senior sponsor or supporter. When I was an undergraduate student in the 1980’s at a predominately white institution in upstate New York, Mr. Edward Bell would have told you that he was my mentor. Little did I know how invaluable he would be in my life for over 30 years. I viewed him as a kind and caring administrator, a strong leader, full of compassion and an insightful person. Who knew then that I would one day follow in his footsteps and also mentor other young professionals in and to join the higher education field. However, I wasn’t sure back then that he was my “mentor” or at least, I did not know that this was the term that one would use. He took an active and sincere interest in my academic classes; he encouraged my hopes and dreams; he cared about me and my well-being and my social life and he would check-in. On Friday nights, he would invite a small group of students (African-Americans and Hispanics) to his beautiful home for a delicious home cooked meal, watch a movie, or just talk. His wife, who is an excellent cook, was always present with the group of college students.
Today, Mr. Bell, who was the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, is happily retired and now lives in North Carolina. He sees mentorship just as important in the 1980’s as he does in 2018. He recently told me “I strongly believe that it’s something that should be available to all students, not just those at the top of the class or “at-risk”. And its goal should be helping students along whatever path they choose, not necessarily encouraging them into higher education.” This vision of mentorship is spreading at institutions of higher education. Most universities want to make it a central part of the student experience, something that I think is critical to student success. For mentoring to effect institutional change in higher education, it must be more than informal or spontaneous. The leadership within an institution must first recognize and identify the need for mentoring and then plan, develop, support and promote a program that directly addresses and supports a mentoring program.
Mentoring students doesn’t mean acting like a parent or being a best friend. Mentorship has been described as a “professional” relationship as opposed to a “personal” one. This framing, I think, can remind faculty and staff not to take it personally when a student they are mentoring chooses not to follow their advice or acts in ways with which they disagree. Students, must retain their autonomy. That’s just part of what makes these relationships difficult to manage. No one can make them happen in the first place. That’s why Mr. Bell talks about the effort in terms of increasing the odds that students find a mentor. “Mentorship can’t be forced,” he says, “but it can be encouraged. And when it happens, research suggests, college becomes a richer experience for students – both during and after their time on campus.” Mentoring is a term generally used to describe a relationship between a less experienced individual, called a mentee or protégé, and a more experienced individual known as a mentor.
Traditionally, mentoring is viewed as a dyadic, face-to-face, long-term relationship between a novice student and a supervisory adult that fosters the mentee’s professional, academic, or personal development (Donaldson, Ensher, & Grant-Vallone, 2000). It is important to acknowledge that the term “mentor” is borrowed from the male guide, Mentor, in Greek mythology, and this historical context has informed traditional manifestations of mentoring. The traditional model is but one configuration of mentoring within a wide range of possible models that vary in their structure and function. As for structure, mentoring can involve a one-on-one relationship or a network of multiple mentors (Bird & Didion, 1992). Furthermore, mentoring relationships can be informal or formally assigned, long-term or short-term in nature, and convened electronically or face-to-face (Kasprisin, Boyle Single, Single, & Muller, 2003; Packard, 2003b).
In conclusion, my mentor has been a mainstay in both my professional and personal life. I honestly can say that I still call or text him weekly. Every career and mentorship is unique and may have different criteria and characteristics. You must recognize that professional development through mentorship can be highly beneficial to both mentor and mentee. I strongly believe that mentoring is a critical element in preparing higher education leaders of the future. I feel fortunate enough to have had this experience.
Did/Do you have a mentor? Do you see mentoring students as an important part of your job? What do think is the role of a mentor?