A lingering sense of self-doubt plagued Anna Horton when she transferred to the University of Michigan last year.
The English major worried her prior educational experiences hadn’t prepared her for Michigan, and her performance anxiety centered on her writing skills.
“I wanted to prove that I was good enough to come here, having come from smaller schools,” Horton said.
But through the university mentorship program Transfer Connections, Horton found a faculty mentor who strengthened her faith in her writing and directed her to opportunities in her field.
Transfer Connections pairs peer and faculty or staff mentors with groups of LSA transfer students to support them as they begin their U-M journeys.
Horton’s writing professor and mentor, LSA lecturer Louis Cicciarelli, supported her as a new Wolverine by advising her to apply for a writing tutor position at the Sweetland Center for Writing.
“The moment that he told me that he thought I should apply to Sweetland was pretty huge because it boosted my confidence as far as my writing ability,” she said.
Mentoring has become an important part of the college experience for many students, as research indicates these types of supportive connections have a positive impact on students, even after they graduate.
The 2014 Gallup-Purdue University Index Report, which surveyed roughly 30,000 college graduates, found that employed graduates’ odds of being engaged at work more than double if they had a mentor during college who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams.
Mentoring Programs at U-M
If graduates had mentors during college, the report indicates they are nearly twice as likely to be thriving in various areas of well-being, from financial security to social well-being.
In Gallup’s 2016 report, among graduates who reported they had a mentor and obtained their degree from 2010 to 2016, about four-in-five indicated their mentor was one of their professors, and a third report another university staff or faculty member served as a mentor.
Provost Martin Philbert said good mentorship is an “essential component” of high-quality education and that it takes many forms. This ranges from occasional, informal contacts with experts to formal, scheduled and focused engagement.
Successful mentorship requires active participation on both sides, Philbert says.
“At its noblest, the interaction leaves both with a sense of fulfillment and insight that feeds all future interactions — no matter how brief,” he said. “At its most surprising, mentorship may be found in the most unlikely places with the most unlikely pairings of mentor and mentored. It behooves all of us to be ready for these unexpected opportunities, to be open to giving or receiving mentoring throughout our careers.”
Through several campus mentoring programs, U-M faculty and staff can find an accessible way to positively shape students’ college experiences.
From easing the transition into college to supporting students with historically disenfranchised identities, these programs serve a wide range of students and offer faculty and staff ways to foster student success.
Ayeza Siddiqi, who oversees some of these programs as assistant director of the Office of New Student Programs, said mentors can change the trajectory of students’ lives.
“You see so many narratives around having that person who pushed someone to go down a certain path, and that changed everything that happened in the future.”
Modes of mentoring
Whether it’s working as an apprentice in a lab or having conversations at a coffeehouse, mentoring relationships are as diverse as students.
Faculty and staff say mentoring practices vary by academic discipline, grade level and student needs, and can involve providing students emotional support, technical skills, advice on navigating higher education or an entrance into professional networks.
faculty and staff on mentoring
“I think communication is by far the most important aspect of (mentoring) and so a framework that makes that easier is good.”
— Adam Matzger, Charles G. Overberger Collegiate Professor of Chemistry, professor of chemistry, LSA; professor of macromolecular science and engineering, College of Engineering
“We should be learning as we mentor. Every student, every encounter may cause us to rethink what we believe is the right way to do something.”
— Alford A. Young, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of sociology and Afroamerican and African studies, LSA; professor of public policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
“When I think about our students who are coming from backgrounds where cultural capital around college isn’t as built up, they feel like their career options are limited. To have mentors who will push you to do something you don’t think you’re capable of — really it makes all the difference.”
— Ayeza Siddiqi, assistant director of the Office of New Student Programs
“Mentoring is really more a facilitation. Sometimes it’s a simple role model, sometimes it’s sort of listening to what the students are saying and trying to figure out what they need, whether they know what they need or not.”
— Laura Olsen, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, director of the Michigan Research and Discovery Scholars, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, LSA
In the University Mentorship Program, groups of incoming freshmen are matched with upperclassmen and faculty or staff mentors. During the fall semester, peer mentors take the lead in coordinating events for their group, and they work with faculty or staff mentors to support their mentees.
David Baum, associate director for the Office for Institutional Equity, has been a staff mentor with the program for more than two decades. Among his annual traditions, the former Law School assistant dean takes the entire program on a tour of the Law School and arranges community service projects with his groups.
Baum said he often gets to establish a close relationship with the peer mentors, and that he has the “big picture” conversations with his mentees, like how to take advantage of their time as an undergraduate.
“It’s a nice component of what I would say is the overall tapestry of my career at the University of Michigan,” Baum said. “And it’s especially enjoyable to be able to have positive connections with students now that the focus of my work has moved away from dealing with students directly every day.”
While some campus mentoring programs focus on easing the transition into college for students, others focus on building students’ skills.
One campus mentoring program that allows faculty members to usher in a new generation of researchers is the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which pairs undergraduate students with research mentors — typically faculty members — so that students gain research experience on specific projects.
Students and faculty members are matched based on interests, and participants receive guidance from faculty as they contribute to a larger research goal as well as attend skill-based workshops.
UROP Assistant Director Luciana Aenasoaie said students who have participated in the program have expressed more interest in attending graduate school.
“A lot of mentors say that it’s just rewarding to see a student grow … (and that) it’s because of the UROP student that they are staying productive themselves,” Aenasoaie said.
While mentoring is critical at the undergraduate level, it also plays an important role in the life of graduate students.
The Rackham Graduate School’s MORE (Mentoring Others Results in Excellence) faculty committee provides U-M faculty with tools and practices for mentoring graduate students in order to improve retention and student success.
The committee facilitates departmental mentoring workshops to discuss norms and strategies for effective mentoring relationships, and mentoring plan workshops, during which students and faculty mentors create agreements about expectations.
Looking forward to the future of graduate student mentoring at U-M, MORE chair Adam Matzger, Charles G. Overberger Collegiate Professor of Chemistry, professor of chemistry, macromolecular science and engineering, said the committee is looking at how faculty can better support master’s students, as well as how to provide faculty the tools to support students experiencing mental health issues.
Philbert said while mentorship has long been a part of graduate education, its relevance to undergraduate education has become clear as that field is reexamined.
“Recent innovations in undergraduate education — deep engagement in research, hands-on design projects, service learning courses — offer opportunities for formal and informal mentoring that are of great value,” he said.
Back when he was a student, it was a mentor that inspired MORE committee member Alford Young Jr. to become a professor.
When he started working at U-M, Young, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and professor of sociology, Afroamerican and African studies, and public policy, worked to create spaces to mentor graduate students, forgoing formal pathways to make every interaction a learning opportunity.
He said in higher education, there is a tendency to develop mentoring relationships with students who are “high performers.”
“We are in an educational sector that rewards performance better than acknowledges learning and development and growth,” Young said. “But to take students who have some deficits or who are really distant from this environment, that involves more work and there is not always the same degree of reward in taking a student who is struggling and having them become OK.”
He said mentoring thus connects to the university’s efforts to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion on campus.
“It’s not just bringing folks in. It’s the duality after bringing them in, of helping them adjust to the world they’re in, but helping that world to adjust to them too,” Young said. “And that’s a lot of work for mentors but it’s very important work.”
With Transfer Connections, Cicciarelli — Horton’s faculty mentor — said developing bonds with students as a faculty mentor has helped him feel more a part of the U-M campus as well.
As a mentor, he meets with students who want to chat, attends events with his mentees, and connects students to resources, said Cicciarelli, Charles Baxter Collegiate Lecturer, lecturer III, Sweetland Center for Writing and LSA.
He said it’s the little things that can make all the difference when mentoring students, and that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to make an impact.
“Sometimes it’s just time and sometimes that time is just talking and having a bubble tea,” he said.
His advice to community members who want to be more involved in mentoring on campus is just as simple. Try it, he suggests.
“It might be easier, more natural and more rewarding than you imagine.”