John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

How Would I Find A Mentor?

John N. Gardner

I am writing this several days after attending the 32nd annual First-Year Experience Conference. During that event several educators raised the point with me about the importance of mentoring and, more specifically, how does one go about finding a mentor? Sounds like a simple question. Some of us who have naturally fallen into a mentoring process by the good fortune of having someone offer to be a mentor may find it hard to understand why someone would even have to ask how to find a mentor.

While I don’t have any empirical data on this, my experience suggests to me that most of my fellow higher educators if they have been mentored at all, have been in an informal relationship structure and not one that the institution intentionally provided. This is in spite of the fact that there are enough academic studies to justify colleges and universities establishing formal mentoring structures. The evidence is compelling; those organizations that have such have higher employee morale, see less turnover, and more rapid upward employee mobility. And this is particularly important for women and members of other underrepresented groups.

Of course, this also relates to the field of student success where we have long realized the importance of providing at least one significant “other” for every entering college student. This could be an academic advisor, classroom instructor, counselor, or peer mentor. And we know after forty years of looking at the impact of college that the greatest influence on students during the college years is the influence of other students. This would suggest the special importance of students mentoring students—and of having the students you want mentoring students doing that!

That was what really struck Betsy Barefoot and I when we were working on the research study, “Institutions of Excellence” back in 2002.  In our study we had the privilege and pleasure to study the unique approach to the first year at the United States Military Academy, where every first-year student is assigned an upper class mentor. What is particularly unique about this structure is that the mentor, the more advanced student, is held accountable for the performance of the mentee. Just imagine the impact if we could replicate that mentoring model in conventional higher education settings! That would enable us to intentionally teach students how to be responsible as the core learning objective. A colleague of mine, Dr. Michael Siegel, now of Suffolk University, and I wrote a case study of the West Point mentoring model and other elements of their first-year (Plebe) experience, which was published in the 2005 Jossey-Bass book, Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College (Barefoot, Gardner, et al)

When I was teaching the first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina one of our recommended assignments for the students was one that would result in the “mentor paper.” We tasked each student with viewing the first term of college as a period in which success, both immediate and longer term, would be engendered by the selection of a mentor. We discussed why to select one, how to do so, and who might be possible mentors. And then we required the students to submit an end-of-term paper describing the mentoring relationship they had entered and its outcomes to date. I would tell my students if they couldn’t find anyone else, they would be stuck with me in this role. One of the persistent outcomes from University 101 for forty years now is higher retention rates for course participants.  Mentoring may be a factor in this outcome.

Back to the original question: how to find a mentor? One consideration is whether or not to seek one who is also an employee of the same organization that employs you—let’s call this an internal mentor. There are pros and cons to that. The pros: this person will know the organization well and the other players. Cons: there are things you ideally might want to share but may not wish to divulge. An additional consideration there would be whether to find a person in the immediate unit in which you are appointed or another unit in the institution but not in your reporting lines. Another possibility, of course, is to select someone in a comparable specialty but not employed at the same institution. A further alternative would be to select somebody whose personhood and accomplishments you admire but is of some entirely different profession. I think there should be some common features to any of these types of individuals, including:

  • they are at least a half to full generation older than you
  • they have core values that are consistent with your own
  • they have demonstrated themselves to be trustworthy
  • they have shown a pronounced inclination to the sponsorship of others
  • they have accomplished themselves in ways that you respect, and are perhaps replicable by you
  • they are approachable
  • you have heard them speak about someone who mentored them

For reasons I do not fully understand, I think people feel awkward about asking someone to accept them in a mentor/mentee relationship. Perhaps the concern is that the person being asked may think there is something less than fully desirable about the person asking because the request reveals that no one has yet adopted the person as a mentee. Personally, I think that reaction is highly unlikely. Instead of anticipating that presenting such a request would be potentially embarrassing, I think a more appropriate and accurate way of looking at this is to view it as extending a very high compliment to the person being asked. This doesn’t exactly happen every day. And a person who has accomplished significantly to deserve being a mentor will know how to react and put the requestor at ease. One of any mentor’s qualities should be empathy and there is likelihood the mentor made a similar request some time previously of someone else, and then benefited significantly from that mentorship.

I entitled this piece “How would I find a mentor?” I never answered that question with respect to myself. My first mentor, my first President at the University of South Carolina, found me. He adopted me. I never had to ask him. But I certainly did thank him and honor him. He made a death bed request of me not to ever give up my work on the first year. And I am honoring that today some 32 years later. My next mentor was my Dean. And he adopted me too. I also had a fellow student mentor when I was in college, who was a year ahead of me. Later in our lives, we reversed roles and I mentored him. I could go on. I have had a long list of mentors and I never asked one of them. But I realize I am different in this regard. So if you don’t have one, I urge you to become more intentional about this and ask someone. As I used to tell my students when I was teaching them the principles of public speaking, about which they were terrified: “what is the worst thing that could happen to you if this doesn’t go well?” Asking someone to mentor you should be relatively low stakes if you don’t receive the desired outcome… and potentially high stakes if you do.

Higher Educators Going Back to Class

John N. Gardner

There are moments when I would like to think that every college and university has got their first-year seminar down pat. After all, this course genre has been around since 1982. But, not at all. This course type is so dynamic that many institutions are constantly rethinking this course, as they should be.

The course should be a metaphor for the larger host institution. The course should change as the country changes, the students change, the institution changes. This is so because this is the one course in the curriculum that is all about both the institution and the student—their interface and what happens or can happen when you put the two together. I rarely see an institution go about this rethinking process with sufficient intentionality.

I have recently come to observe one university’s approach to first-year seminar redesign. This is Missouri State University West Plains. How are they approaching this? They are sending their faculty and staff back to class to redesign the class. What does this mean?

It means that first of all, the University appointed a task force that will spend an entire academic year redesigning this course. Who’s on the task force? Faculty, librarian, student affairs, admissions, IT, advising staff, academic department chairs, an instructional designer, the current course leader, an IR professional, the current course director, and Title III staff, 17 people all together. An ideal size group for expertise and multiple perspectives, balance.

And how have they organized this process? Well, just like a class. Actually, it is more like a seminar. I would define a seminar as a learning group where all members are more or less equal in their influence on the rest of the group. All members are to be teachers of the group. All members are learners. All get to speak. They have a syllabus. They have a convener. They have a set of questions they are pursuing on topics they have decided they want to learn more about. They have collected a treasure trove of resource literature. They have made each other assignments. Each will teach all what was learned in the homework. They have created an intentional division of labor with specialized responsibilities. They will also visit some other institutions to observe alternative models. And they are going to several national conferences to further their learning.

They have decided to have fun in the learning process. Each one listens politely to the rest of the group members. And they are punctual and willing to honor the value of each other’s time by showing up on time, and getting right down to business. And they are being paid a stipend for taking this task so seriously. How’s that for a work environment? Institutions invest in what they value.

Ultimately, one of the most important things this group will do is to decide what it wants to learn, what questions it wants to pursue. So they are starting by asking:

  • Who are the students we are serving? What do we really know about them?
  • What do we know about the multiple course versions our institution has had over 17 years?
  • What has worked well, we are satisfied with, ain’t broke, and doesn’t need fixing? How do we honor our past, particularly the hard work of our course leaders, while at the same time being free to move forward in new directions if we should so choose?
  • How can we assess the effectiveness of our multiple previous and current versions of this course?
  • When we have determined all of the above, what do we want the purposes of our new course to be?
  • How will it connect to the institutional mission?
  • Once we have accomplished the above, this will drive what we want our goals and objectives to be.
  • In turn that will drive course content and pedagogies for delivery.
  • How do we get student input on what they think they need, what has worked, what might work in the future?
  • How do we keep our colleagues not in this redesign process apprised of our process?
  • How do we begin preparing the administration of the directions we are moving and the resources we will need?

And these are only the starting questions. I suspect that once again this process will prove that the questions are more important than the answers.

I wish this kind of process were underway for all first-year seminars.

The Movement is Spreading and Deepening

A sign of the institutionalizing of any educational reform movement, of course, is the spreading and deepening of the activity in terms of adoption and success. The “movement” I am most interested in is the so-called “first-year experience” or “college success” or “student success” movements, which I am sometimes credited with launching. I did play a role in that, for sure, but I certainly had a great deal of help, especially from my colleagues at the University of South Carolina, and later from the Institute which I founded.

One manifestation of this “spreading and deepening” is the slow but gradual proliferation of state and regional convenings of higher educators that I and my two non-profit organizations focused on student success have NOT organized and hosted.

There are such initiatives flourishing now in the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Ohio; and now a newcomer, but a real “comer”—in Massachusetts which is a gathering for the entire New England region.

I participated in the First Annual New England Student Success Conference, organized by my friends Robert Feldman and Mark Lange and their outstanding team at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. There first gathering was held on October 8 and had as an original planning goal 250 attendees. It was “sold out” and “closed” at 300. Talk about demand. When I left the meeting, the organizers were already planning next year’s gathering. If you are interested you should contact either of those gentlemen. I recommend you request from them a link to the session materials. I attended two sessions which were both outstanding: one by a splendid team from Framingham State University who illustrated how to translate a complex action improvement plan into sustained implementation to reap increased student success and retention (about10%); and the second by Jane Wellman, the provocative and profound scholar of higher education cost assessment. We all need to take her advice and start assessing the cost benefits of our first-year initiatives and we will be inspired by the results of her model for doing so.

I think it is most fitting that the region where “the first year” in American higher education began in 1636 has its own “network” for which the foundational steps were laid at this first meeting. There is nothing like local grass roots action to institutionalize any movement.

Congratulations from a recovering former Yankee to my New England colleagues who are moving to the next level in promoting student success.

-John N. Gardner

Empathetic Recall

For 25 years at the University of South Carolina I was responsible for coordinating our twice a year University 101 Faculty/Staff “Teaching Experience Workshop.” The purpose of this was to prepare our next cohort of instructors for the first-year seminar course.

One of the exercises we used was called “empathetic recall.” It was really very simple. We would ask our newest “class” of seminar teachers to recall what they were like when they were a beginning college student; and then to contrast those recollections with how they see entering students today.

I continue to use some of the “trigger” questions we would use to undertake such a recall and comparison. I commend them to you now for your consideration as you prepare to greet this year’s crop of incoming students.

1. What year did you enter college?
2. How many years ago is that?!
3. How old were you when you started college?
4. Who was President of the United States at that time?
5. Did the occupant of that office have any influence on your thinking about the world, our country, and your purposes?
6. Do you remember any major world event that happened that same year that really impinged on your consciousness?
7. Approximately, what did you pay that year – for a haircut, cup of coffee, a beer, a movie?
8. As you entered college, were you asked to read anything as some colleges do now in a “common read?” If so, do you remember what you were asked to read?
9. Do you remember your orientation?
10. Your first advisor? If so, what about him/her?
11. Any courses you took first term and how you performed?
12. Your room mate if applicable?
13. How you felt about your new beginning?

For me, the year was 1961. That was 49 years ago.

I was 17.

John Kennedy had been in the White House about six months and I already admired him greatly. And I was thinking about what I could do for my country.

The Berlin Wall had gone up that year and the Cold War was in full force and fury. And this would lead me to having to register for the draft, which today’s students don’t even know the meaning of.

I don’t remember what I paid for any of those things, and I didn’t drink beer or anything else. I do remember that gasoline was about 35cents a gallon.

We did not have a common read. But I do remember Orientation, particularly a picnic where I was so lonely. And I remember how much older the senior RA’s looked, and wise, and suave and debonair. And I predicted I could never look like that. I also remember the orientation speeches punch lines, such as “Look to the left and look to the right and the two you just looked at won’t be here four years from now when you graduate!”

I remember my first advisor. At midterm he told me “you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised.” What prompted this were my mid-term grades: 3F’s, 2D’s, and 1A.

My roommate was a big strapping football player, from Boston who was homesick for his girlfriend back home (so was I). And he was mailing his laundry back to his mother in Boston. One day, about 6 weeks into the term, he announced to me: “I am leaving college.” And leave he did. I didn’t know you could leave college.

How did I feel at the beginning of college? Lonely, “undeclared”, homesick, anxious, depressed, lost.

College kids like me needed help from people like you.

When you engage in empathetic recall, how do your incoming students match up? That is a fair question.

-John Gardner