The value of faculty mentoring
Georgina Breihof UA’16 and Jim Stellar
The 2014 Gallup/Purdue poll suggests that students who had a mentor in college were 2.2 times more likely to be engaged in the workplace much later in life. But it does not take such a finding to convince most people that mentoring is important, particularly in college when it comes from the faculty experts who teach classes and do research in the student’s field of interest. For example, consider our own experiences being mentored by faculty, separated by more than 40 years in time.
GB’s experience: In my junior year of college it came time for me to take the dreaded statistics of psychology class. While loving psychology classes, and not loving math classes so much, I was nervous to say the least. As soon as I walked into the first class, Dr. K made me realize that it wasn’t going to be so bad after all. In fact, she was very welcoming, and truly cared about each student. I made time for office hours almost every week, and from then on a mentoring relationship formed. Not only did I get an A in her class, I also continued to take different classes that she was teaching at the time. When I had asked her to write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school (in the fall of 2015) she said “absolutely”. Since then we have met a few times on campus to discuss different options that I had, and offered her advice to me. I was really quite stuck on what step to take next in my life, and she helped me to sort everything out. At the time that I had her as a professor, she was completing her doctorate degree in psychology. Considering I was a psychology major, her advice was very helpful. We still keep in contact, and whenever I have any questions she is always there to help. I plan on taking her advice to continue my education at the University at Albany. Thank you Dr. K.
JS’s experience: I was a college junior, biology major, premed, and walking out of my course on what we would call today behavioral neuroscience when my professor, Dr. S, stopped me. He actually grabbed me by the shirt collar (an unusual move even then), pulled me aside, and asked me if I knew what I was doing with my life. I was stunned. He then said to me something like “you may remember that I have seen you in the undergraduate premedical meetings. You look bored there. In my class, you sit in the front, lean forward in your chair, and ask me questions after class. Are you sure you want to be a doctor? Maybe you want to be a neuroscience professor and do research.” I was stunned again…because he was right. I had been privately re-thinking my standard easy answer of “bio-pre-med” to the question of what I was studying. I realized then, I liked that answer because it was simple, not necessarily because it was right. So, I blurted out to Dr. S, “What should I do?” He said, calmly, “Do an internship, man” (remember this was the end of the ‘60s and people talked like that. I did that internship over the junior/senior summer, switched my focus, became a professor, and never regretted it. That encounter re-directed my life. Thank you Dr. S.
So what is common between these two experiences?
Both of us had developed a relationship with that professor (GB made a better description of how that happened) and that relationship permitted a sharing of an emotional state (in the case of JS, a failure to recognize a development in himself toward research and away from medicine). So how does a mentor and a mentee connect? It is not magic. It depends upon a number of factors.
One factor is well-known, social-psychological, non-verbal communication, such as being able to read each other’s emotions on the face and/or in body posture or the tone of voice. That allows one person to put themselves in the place of another person and understand their thinking – what psychologists call theory of mind. Informally, we might call that rapport. A mentoring relationship is much more likely when the two people involved seem to get along somehow even if there is a typical faculty-student age separation.
Another factor is the deep dependence on the context. In each case, the specific career guidance depended on the course topic and our reactions to it. This is one of the reasons that faculty can make good mentors. If a student is interested in a particular topic (and there are many of them in life) it may well be the case that the university has someone who specializes in that area. Often these discoveries are accidental when the student takes a faculty member’s class and discovers that they like the topic. As an aside, this is also why doing an internship is useful as there one can be in the workplace in a different context outside of coursework.
Culture also plays a role, especially in a university where faculty have the power from their position and can either be welcoming or off-putting. In this case, the culture might be one of age or power. But there are many cultures in a university and very often minority faculty members find themselves in mentoring relationships due to the culture of race and/or ethnicity. Some people want a mentor who comes from their background. Handled well, this dimension of mentoring can convey a powerful authenticity.
It is also important that the student who is being mentored is eager to be mentored. If the student does not reciprocate then there will no opportunity to create that relationship.
While mentors can be very important as well as helpful, no one is specifically assigned a mentor. Mentors happen when you are in the right time at the right place. The relationship forms when two personalities mesh well together while sharing commonalities. For example, we two met at a restaurant where GB was the waitress and JS was taking some university people and a guest to lunch. Somehow we connected, and that led to our mentoring relationship and this blog. While universities must encourage, support and connect people for mentoring, it is also important to allow for a spontaneous, organic development between people even in unlikely places. These relationships can form when you least expect it.
We hope to have more to say about this topic as we continue to collaborate and perform research together.