Mentoring offers perspective, encouragement, and support. It's not a new concept, nor has its value diminished over time. The origin of the word "mentor" appears in Homer's Odyssey; the first modern use of the term "mentor" dates from the late 17th century.
For higher education, mentoring can be particularly important. In a world that is rapidly changing, helping students engage, stay on track, and achieve their goals is harder than ever. At the same time, universities are always looking for ways engage alumni. Mentorship helps with both of those challenges.
With those ideas in mind, faculty and development staff at the College of Applied and Natural Sciences at Louisiana Tech University, U.S., launched a mentoring program in 2020 that is demonstrating positive impact for both students and alumni while achieving engagement goals for our institution.
“The mentor gets so much more out of the program than the mentee does,” one of our alumni mentors pointed out, speaking to the reciprocity of a mentor-mentee relationship and how mentoring can be a meaningful way to achieve the goals we have for our university.
A Mutually Beneficial Engagement Opportunity
We are all acutely aware of how the COVID-19 pandemic isolated us. In higher education, our students had limited engagement with each other; faculty and alumni could not come to campus. Throughout the 2020-2022 academic terms, we were all seeking ways to remain connected and engaged.
Many of us on faculty and staff had previously avoided virtual engagement options, thinking that the only way we could form meaningful relationships was to have people physically together on campus. But during the pandemic, we learned that wasn’t true. Faculty were effectively teaching and holding office hours over Zoom, phone, email, and text. As they advised students on how to continue pursuing their goals through this crisis, they could see the students’ need for interaction, no matter the modality.
At the same time, administrators and development officers were regularly connecting with alumni who were anxious to know how the university was managing the crisis and often wondered what they could do to help. Given our students’ needs and the eagerness of our alumni to serve, we decided to pursue an alumni mentoring program.
Launching this program as a collaborative initiative between faculty and advancement staff allowed us to help our students navigate a pandemic—while also gaining a valuable window to the professional world. With rapid advances in technology and artificial intelligence tools, and changes in workforce needs, it is critical for our students to remain current. On a college campus, we can be insulated from those forces, but alumni can be a connecting thread. This mentoring program helped us extend the boundaries of our campus by putting our students in contact with alumni in the professions they wanted to join after graduation.
The Building Blocks of a Mentoring Program
The College of Applied and Natural Sciences houses five academic units, all focused on hands-on learning in areas of health sciences and natural resources. This college of 1,608 students is the second largest of five colleges at the university.
As we developed our mentoring program, we carefully selected two academic units to lead the initiative. The first was a program for the School of Biological Sciences, which houses one of the two largest majors on our campus. The Bachelor of Science in biology degree program in any given academic year has more than 500 undergraduate students, many of whom are interested in pursuing careers in health, medical sciences, and areas of natural resources.
With this in mind, we sought to partner students with our alumni who are working as physicians, dentists, pharmacists, and environmental scientists. These partnerships were especially critical during the pandemic, when students were unable to acquire clinical and volunteer hours needed to support their applications to professional school and needed insight and encouragement to continue working toward their goals despite these setbacks.
The second mentoring program we established was in the Division of Nursing. Men are an underrepresented group in the nursing profession: in the U.S., they represent only 12% of nurses (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023) and research has found they have few male nursing faculty role models (Moore & Xie, 2020). Higher attrition rates have been reported for male students (Kronsberg et al., 2018; MacWilliams et al., 2013) who may leave the program if they do not have appropriate support. With that in mind we created the Mentoring Men in Nursing Alumni Program, partnering our students with male alumni from our nursing program.
With the biology program, we encouraged faculty to recommend the program to students in their second or third year of study who they thought would most benefit from the opportunity. For the Mentoring Men in Nursing program, male students in the clinical nursing courses could apply for one of 10 available mentee opportunities. We did not have a grade point average requirement and instead sought out students who seemed to have the motivation and desire for such an opportunity. From there students completed an application and were evaluated based on their responses and our ability to appropriately match them with a mentor.
To select mentors for our programs, faculty and development staff worked closely together to identify alumni currently working in fields of interest to our students. We kept the mentor application brief and gave them an opportunity to identify their goals as mentors. We encouraged mentors to identify populations of students they might most want to mentor. Mentees were matched with potential mentors based on interest area and those preferences indicated by the mentors. In most cases, we selected one-to-one pairings, although in a few cases during the first two years one mentor was assigned two mentees.
The program was designed to run for two academic quarters (December through May). Mentor and mentee partners were introduced via email and mentees were held responsible for ensuring regular communication with their mentor. Once a month, we sent a brief survey to mentees to see how they were engaging with their mentors, and we reminded them to contact us if they were having any issues with communication. In most cases, students connected with their mentors by phone (call or text message) or email on average once a month. As the academic year ended, we held a reception to recognize the mentors and mentees. Those in attendance shared their experiences and offered advice on how to continue improving the program. Throughout the program, we remained informal, hoping that freedom would empower the students to build the relationship that best suited them and their mentors.
Gaining a Mentor, and a Friend
When asked what encouraged them to apply for the mentoring program, students often credited the recommendation of a professor or friend who had participated previously. Students expected to connect to someone who they could occasionally email with questions during the six-month program. For many, though, the relationship lasted well beyond the two quarters of the program.
One student told us she “not only gained a mentor, but also gained a friend.” When asked what she would say to encourage undergraduates to participate in the program, another mentee responded, there are "so many paths you can choose, and once you finally figure out WHAT you want to do, you need to figure out HOW you are going to get there. By joining the mentor program, you will always have someone in your corner to help you with these big life decisions. I feel that by joining the program, you not only have someone to help give advice during college, you also have someone to aid and cheer you on for the rest of your career.”
Mentees see the investment the university made in them and want to reciprocate. The mentoring program offers an option for giving back in the future, when they have established themselves in a profession.
“I hope to be a role model, advocate, and cheerleader for mentees in several different areas. I especially hope to be the resource my mentor was to me,” said one of our mentees.
Alumni are Excited to Pay it Forward
Initially we were unsure how many alumni would want to participate and what would motivate them to give back. When asked why he decided to participate in the program, one mentor said, “As a college student in pursuit of a graduate degree, I found myself getting self-absorbed with my goals and my career path. As I got older and ‘wiser,’ it occurred to me how many people at LA Tech invested in ME! They poured so much of their experience and time into me, it was incumbent on me to ‘pay it forward.’”
This same mentor acknowledged that prior to becoming a mentor, he “was not really engaged [outside of being a donor to the university and attending a few football games] and felt very much on the periphery.” After joining the mentoring program in the first year, this alumnus returned for the second, visited student organizations, and was invited to speak at a recent commencement. It has “even opened doors for [him] in the [local] business community.”
We have seen increased engagement (including philanthropy) following the mentoring program. While 56% of our mentors were already donating to the university, 18% of the mentors became first-time donors after engaging in the program. We also saw 82% of our mentors increase their average gift to the university and two donors who are mentors established new scholarships in their respective disciplines.
Evaluating and Expanding the Programs
Following our first year with 15 students and 14 mentors, we reached out to other programs in our college to support them in developing alumni mentoring programs. In the second year, we added a Connect-A-Vet mentoring program to support our pre-veterinary science students and a health informatics and information management mentoring program. After three years, we saw 81 students and 62 alumni mentors participate across these four programs. Now, with pandemic restrictions lifted, some of our mentors and mentees in the same location are meeting in person.
At the end of our second year, we hosted an event for department heads to meet with a physician who established a mentoring program at his own university. William Turner, a surgeon and professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, U.S., shared his experiences as a mentor, provided advice on our mentoring program, and gave encouragement as we sought to grow our program.
“You can never predict what will take hold in a mentee, inspiring them for a lifetime,” said Turner, who received the UT Southwestern Leadership in Clinical Excellence Award in 2022 for his dedication to mentoring.
We are thrilled with our program's initial outcomes, as well as the collaborations it's helped form between faculty and the advancement office. As we look to grow these mentoring programs, though, we know that mentorship cannot be forced. Although we work hard to understand the needs and goals of our mentor and mentee participants, there is always a risk in setting up a student and alumnus who have never met. Many of our first-year mentorship pairs remain in regular contact with one another, even three years after being introduced—but not all. We are in the process of actively reaching out to more alumni, collecting information on their own experiences with or as mentors. By expanding our pool of mentors, we're hopeful we can facilitate even better fits between students and alumni in the future.
Creating an Alumni Mentoring Program: 3 Keys for Success
Strategically Identify Student Participants
- Identify the programs or cohorts of students who would most benefit from the program.
- Partner with a faculty advocate who can help recruit and work with students.
Build Collaboration Between Faculty and Advancement Staff
- Make sure the goals of the program are clear to both faculty and staff.
- Work together to identify the right population of alumni to serve as mentors.
- Share ideas for how to communicate with and support alumni to ensure strong relationship-building with students.
Make Participation Flexible and Simple
- When recruiting alumni mentors and students, keep applications simple.
- Ask mentors for their name, contact information, degree, and a brief explanation for their interest. Ask them if they have a preference for a mentee with a particular lived experience, such as first-generation student, gender, social economic factors, etc.
- Ask students for their name, contact information, degree program, career goals, identities, and a brief statement on why they want to participate.
- Give students and mentors guidance for how or when to meet but build in flexibility so they can build the relationship that suits them.
About the author(s)
Donna Hood is College of Applied and Natural Sciences Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Nursing, Louisiana Tech University.
Penny Humphries is College of Applied and Natural Sciences Director of Development, Louisiana Tech University.
Gary Kennedy is Dean, College of Applied and Natural Sciences, Louisiana Tech University.
Jamie J. Newman is College of Applied and Natural Sciences Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies and Professor of Biology, Louisiana Tech University.
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