Mentors play a large role in whether students feel supported, challenged academically, or satisfied with their degree. But the students who stand to benefit the most from mentors are often those who are least likely to have one.
Only 25% of college graduates report having a helpful college mentor, according to the 2018 Strada-Gallup alumni survey. Among the students who reported having a mentor, 72% of white students identified their mentor as a professor, compared with 61% of first-generation students and just 47% of minoritized students.
Mentors, who may be professors, staff members, and administrators, are also critical to recruiting and retaining students from underrepresented groups, argues Shampa Biswas, a professor of politics Whitman College.
Biswas credits part of her persistence through academia to mentors who were willing to support and advocate for students from underrepresented groups. Similarly, Alvaro Huerta, an assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, says support from mentors helped him feel confident in his ability to overcome academic obstacles.
Huerta and Biswas pull from their experiences both as mentees and as mentors to identify a few ways campus leaders can support students from underrepresented groups.
Before you offer guidance, listen carefully to the student’s concerns, advises Huerta. Effective listeners don’t sneak a glance at their inbox or let their minds wander, according to research from leadership consultants. Instead, ask clarifying questions and observe the student’s nonverbal cues, such as facial expression or posture.
And take your student’s concerns seriously, writes Biswas. Students from underrepresented groups can experience microaggressions (e.g., a female student overlooked by the professor in a male-dominated computer science class) that leave them feeling confused and wondering if they are overreacting, she explains. Mentors can help validate students’ experiences and help them feel like valuable campus members.
2: Provide next steps
If a student shares that her professor refuses to try to pronounce her name correctly or that a staff member singled her out to show her ID in order to enter the library, don’t just commiserate, writes Biswas. Instead, offer practical tips on how to navigate sensitive situations, she recommends. For example, if they feel overlooked in class, teach them how to write a respectful email to the professor.
Similarly, if a student shares his concerns about graduating on time, go beyond encouraging him to work harder, writes Huerta. Connect him to the right resources, like the financial aid office or the campus tutoring center, and work with his advisors to create a concrete plan that helps him reach his goals.
3: Share your story
You can help students feel less alone by sharing your own struggles, writes Christina Hubbard, community college expert at EAB and former advisor. Hubbard, who became a parent at 16, recalls how sharing her experience as a teen parent helped her connect with student-parents on campus.
“I was advising a young mother who was struggling in her second semester of developmental coursework… It was clear that she didn’t believe I understood her struggles… [and] my advice was falling on deaf ears,” writes Hubbard. “The impasse ended when I told her my story. She realized that I knew the fear that caring for a child at home could mean failure in college.”
Biswas argues that sharing your challenges with students from underrepresented backgrounds can help them relate to you. In turn, students are more likely to be honest about their own lives and priorities (Huerta, Inside Higher Ed, 6/14; Biswas, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/13).
Read more about mentors’ role in student success
Under any definition of student success—from retention metrics to life-long fulfillment—research has demonstrated a strong link between faculty activity and student outcomes.