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.

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