The Benefits of Establishing a Student/Alumni Mentoring Program

Sarah Elizabeth Pfeifer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The benefits of establishing student/alumni mentoring programs are immense. Students have the opportunity to talk and visit with professionals who were once students in their shoes. They have the chance to ask questions, observe the workplace, and learn about a specific company. The alumni mentors can “provide career guidance, encouragement during the academic program, advice on important course and field work, and opportunities to make professional contacts” (Dragovich and Margeton, 1995, p. 346). In addition, students build stronger connections to the institution through interaction with alumni. Today, many students are studying “vocational” curricula in which networking is key and previous experience is necessary. Mentoring provides both of these important opportunities, as well as many other benefits.

Students are not the only ones to benefit from student/alumni mentoring programs. Such programs give alumni an important opportunity to reconnect with their alma mater. Often alumni want to become involved in activities that further promote and serve the university, and being a mentor allows them to become involved. Mentoring programs also provide alumni who are not able to make substantial financial contributions the chance to give something other than a donation to their alma mater. These programs give alumni the opportunity to cultivate and recruit promising young people to their place of employment after graduation.

The institution itself also reaps the rewards of establishing student/alumni mentoring programs. These programs are exceptional recruitment and retention tools for universities. Additionally, universities are able to strengthen ties to alumni. Engaging alumni in this type of program may lead to future financial investments in the university. Alumni can see how their involvement and financial support can really make a difference in students' lives. In addition, these programs can build ties with the employers of the participating alumni. If the experience is positive, employers may be more inclined to interview and hire students from a specific institution than they were before. Businesses also benefit from these mentoring programs with an increased presence on campuses and among students. This kind of program is a great way for students to become familiar with a specific business's products and services.

Student/alumni mentoring programs are not new; however, most people within higher education are more familiar with the more traditional student/faculty mentoring relationships. This kind of mentoring relationship can also be beneficial for students and faculty. Faculty mentors can offer students the opportunity to conduct research, make key contacts within their field, and enhance their interpersonal skills. However, the needs of today's students cannot be met by faculty alone. Although faculty members are still serving as mentors, students are looking for other ways to learn about careers and the business world. Students want to know what skills and tools they need to be successful and competitive in the marketplace. In response to this demand, alumni associations, career counselors, and academic advisers have begun working together to develop students' career interests and goals through student/alumni mentoring programs.

Academic advisers should take an active role in developing these student/alumni mentoring programs. They will need to be key players in helping to set up successful matches between students and alumni. To do so, advisers need to understand the goals and expectations of a mentoring program. Mentoring has been described as requiring “personal, one-to-one contact” (Johnson, 1989, p.118). The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (1994) defines a mentor as a trusted counselor or guide. The University of Minnesota website has what I feel is the best description of effective mentoring relationships: “A mentor acts as an adviser and professional guide to the world of work for a less experienced person. The goal of mentoring is to help students gain the skills and confidence to explore their areas of interest” (Alumni Mentor Programs). There are many types of mentoring programs in higher education. Some are based on specific majors or interests, while others are based on special populations such as minorities, women, or physically impaired students. Many mentoring programs target a specific age group, such as freshmen or seniors. To be most effective, the goals and expectations for the mentoring program should be decided together by the mentor and student, who must agree on what the nature of the relationship will be and what they each expect from the relationship.

Advisers should actively pursue the development of a student/alumni mentoring program within their units. Working with the alumni association, advisers can build a program that provides unique mentoring opportunities. Many alumni directors are receptive to this type of program because alumni often ask how can they volunteer. Alumni directors are also a vital resource for the adviser because they are familiar with the professional accomplishments of alumni. In addition, if your unit employs a career counselor on staff, it would be advantageous to involve him/her on this project. Career counselors can provide additional insight into particular businesses, employment trends, and job requirements. Often they are more familiar with a specific company than an alumni director or adviser would be. This connection is important in the matching process because the business affiliated with the mentor is a significant aspect of the pairing. In developing a mentoring program, it is important to incorporate the academic advisers, the alumni association, and career counselors in order to provide the best and most comprehensive program to students.

In developing the program and preparing students to participate in it, advisers should keep in mind O'Banion's model of advising and its five major components: exploration of life goals, exploration of vocational goals, program choice, course choice, and scheduling courses (Rankey, 1994). Advisers should have already discussed with students their life and career goals before placing them in a student/alumni mentoring program. A student who knows his or her interests and professional goals will benefit more from the mentoring relationship because of an increased self-awareness.

Academic advisers should actively encourage each student to participate in an undergraduate mentoring experience, which will have many short- and long-term benefits for the student. Depending on the nature of the mentoring relationship and the institution, advisers may also want to encourage students to apply for independent study credit based on their mentoring experiences. Having an adviser who is encouraging and supportive of the mentoring relationship is one of the most important aspects of the experience. Many potential student participants are hesitant to engage in such a new experience. The adviser can help build the student's confidence by assuring the student that the pairing will be beneficial and explaining the adviser's significant role in the matchmaking process.

Once the mentoring relationship has been established, academic advisers should check on the progress of the relationship occasionally over the course of the semester, providing an opportunity for the student to discuss problems or new ideas that may have surfaced during the mentoring. Students may want to discuss their new interests and goals, begin to refine their academic plans, or confirm a mentor's academic suggestions with the adviser. At this point, the adviser serves as a reference for the student.

One of the most important reasons for advisers to be involved in the mentoring program is that mentors can make mistakes. Sandler (1993) provides many examples of possible mistakes that occur in mentoring programs. Mentors often do not have the background to make accurate judgements on students' abilities, so they may misperceive a student's potential and set goals too high or low. They frequently favor their area of expertise over other areas, influencing a student's career choice as well as creating pressure to focus on that area, regardless of the student's interest. Mentors can also provide inaccurate academic advice, not realizing that graduation requirements have changed since they left campus, especially in regard to general education requirements. A mentor cannot be everything to a student, nor can an adviser serve all of a student's needs. However, mentors may not realize their limitations and may try to do too much for students. Students should not rely solely on the mentoring experience to meet their developmental needs; reliance on the mentor for all support and information will cause unnecessary stress on the relationship. Instead, the student should establish a team of people who can contribute information, allowing the student to take advantage of each person's strengths. For this reason, an adviser must stay involved and be an important part of the student's team. Together, the adviser and alumni mentor can play a powerful role in the student's future successes.

Academic advisers should seize the opportunity to improve their advisees' undergraduate experience by helping to build and maintain a student/alumni mentoring program. The benefits of this program will be felt by all of those involved. Students will gain important insights, alumni will feel more connected to their alma mater, and the institution will have a stronger network of individuals working to improve the undergraduate experience. None of this is possible without the support and dedication of academic advisers.

References

Dragovich, P., & Margeton, S. (1995). Alma mater mentoring: Library science alumni promote school and profession. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 36(4), 346–52.

Johnson, C. S. (1989). Mentoring programs. In M. L. Upcraft, J. N. Gardner, & associates (Eds.), The Freshman Year Experience (pp.118–128). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (1994). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Rankey, R. (1994). Reflections in a rearview mirror—Revising the O'Banion Model. NACADA Journal 14(2), 39–42.

Sandler, B. R. (1993, March 10). Women as mentors: Myths and commandments. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved July 21, 2002, from http://www.chronicle.com.

Alumni Mentor Program: Program Information. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2002, from University of Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts website: http://www.cla.umn.edu/alumni/program.htm.

Other Resources

Arizona State University, Architecture and Environmental Design

College of Lake County

Gonzaga University

University of California, Hastings College of Law

University of Columbia

University of Minnesota

Wheaton College

About the Author

Sarah Elizabeth Pfeifer is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at spfeifer@uiuc.edu.

Published in The Mentor on October 7, 2002, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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