Why Mentoring Matters: African-American Students and the Transition to College
Dr. Keonya Booker, College of Charleston,
Ernest Brevard, Jr., College of Charleston
At the postsecondary level, the process of mentoring involves academic guidance and social support. The purpose of this study was to explore how first-year African-American students experienced a year-long mentoring program at a mid-sized liberal arts college. Fifty-eight undergraduate African-American students were surveyed at the conclusion of the mentoring program. Findings revealed the majority of students regarded the mentoring program as worthwhile and a positive part of their transition to college. Some first-year students who were paired with older students had a mixed experience. Implications for mentoring programs using a combination of faculty, staff, and upperclassmen mentors are discussed.
The purpose of this study is to describe the experiences of African-American students participating in a year-long, first-year mentoring program at a predominantly white institution (PWI) in the Southeastern United States. Mentoring has been defined in a multitude of ways in several discipline bases including psychology (Lee, 1999), business (Healy, 1997; Kram, 1998), education (Zellers, Howard, & Barcic, 2008), and management (Mertz, 2004). As it relates to college students, the mentoring literature base is replete with examples of mentoring as a function of career planning (Philip & Hendry, 2000), social orientation to the university (Cox & Orehovec, 2007), and academic support and guidance (Kim & Sax, 2009). In this article we examine how a mentoring program for first-year African-American students affects their transition to college and the nature of the relationships mentees established with their mentors.
In its broadest form, mentoring is the process of a knowledgeable person facilitating the growth, maturation and development of another person of lesser experience. While most research on mentoring examines formal pathways to mentoring, informal mentoring can be just as impactful (Reddick, 2006; Terrion & Leonard, 2007). Sands, Parson, and Duane (1991) noted there are four general functions of a mentor: a friend who serves an interpersonal function; a career guide who promotes professional insight; an information source who provides practical advice about academic expectations; and an intellectual guide who can offer constructive criticism about empirical pursuits. While one can argue each function of a mentor has specific utility, oftentimes faculty will engage in one approach to the exclusion of the others or naturally gravitate toward a particular function.
Evidence suggests that mentoring is critical early in adulthood and/or during important life transitions, such as the first year of college (Levinson et al., 1978). For incoming students, acclimation to their surroundings is a crucial step in adjusting to campus life. Many are leaving home for the first time and are experiencing independent living as a young adult. Having the guidance and support of an experienced person can help students make a smoother transition.
As the faculty-student relationship is a primary one in postsecondary settings (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), most mentoring falls into the realm of academic mentoring.
Academic mentoring can take many forms and faculty play multiple roles therein. At some universities faculty mentoring is an expectation for those working with the students majoring in their respective discipline and can best be likened to advising (Crisp & Cruz, 2009). In this way, mentoring is an extension of the advising duties faculty assume. The relationship may be brief and not include much assistance beyond coursework planning or internship scheduling.
Mentoring can also focus on providing students with relational outlets to facilitate adjustment to the institution. Research demonstrates that students who perceive faculty as respectful and accessible showed greater self-confidence in their chosen career path (Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010). Students also reported higher self-esteem, self-efficacy, and fulfillment when engaged in social mentoring relationships with faculty. In many ways, the interpersonal relationships students have with professors will determine their satisfaction with the college experience (Jacobi, 1991) and sense of belonging to their university (Bain, 2004). As the goal is to have students matriculate to graduation, having students feel connected to the university by way of positive faculty interactions is a step in the right direction.
Since the mentoring relationship involves a more knowledgeable person with a younger, less experienced person, peers can also provide useful mentoring support. Colvin and Ashman (2010) maintained, “Peer mentoring focuses on a more experienced student helping a less experienced student improve overall academic performance… [the mentor] provides advice, support, and knowledge to the mentee” (p. 122). In their study of a peer mentoring leadership program, the authors found that student mentors viewed their roles in important and useful ways. As mentors, they learned the importance of time management, team-building, communication skills and leadership theory. Working with first-year students, the mentors saw their contributions as providing a “connecting link” for new students with pertinent campus resources (p. 125) and a “learning coach” (p.126) to help first-year students persist to graduation.
African-American College Students and Mentoring
For African-American students, mentoring can be particularly vital to their persistence to degree, especially at PWIs (Freeman, 1999). The extant literature has shown that African-American students have experiences quite different from their majority counterparts. African-American undergraduates may have feelings of disengagement, withdrawal, isolation, and less campus involvement than their classmates. For students of color transitioning to a college setting, these emotions may prevent them from seeking the support necessary to persist to degree. Mentoring programs, with an emphasis on interpersonal reinforcement, can buffer the effects of low belongingness and disconnection from the campus community.
Effective mentoring for African-American undergraduates focuses on class performance, major selection, and degree persistence. Academically, students of color benefit from mentoring when measures such as GPA and credit attainment are employed (Campbell & Campbell, 2007). Research also shows that certain types of academic mentoring are associated with greater student satisfaction and retention (Ishiyama, 2007; Strayhorn & Saddler, 2009). Specifically, African-American students reported a higher degree of satisfaction with research-focused faculty support than other types of mentoring. The implications of this work indicate that African-American students may need more structured and academically-focused mentoring than support that primarily emphasizes socialization and interpersonal bonding.
This is not to say that African-American students are unaffected by the presence of positive faculty social interactions. Defreitas and Bravo (2012) found that students of color who were involved with faculty outside of the classroom had higher classroom performance. Of note, African-American students mentioned that faculty provided clarity about course requirements or support for metacognitive study strategies, such as note-taking. In their analysis of a campus-wide mentoring program, Brittain, Sy, and Stokes (2009) revealed that students of color experienced personal growth through connecting with mentoring staff. These students also felt the mentoring program created a sense of belonging for them as student participants. Even face-to-face mentoring is not a requirement, as Boyd et al. (1991) found in a study of African-American students. Faculty mentors used a system of telephoning students on a regular basis to facilitate the mentoring process. Program mentees reported feeling more connected to the university because mentors offered both pertinent academic information and assuaged their concerns about being away from home in a new environment.
The Mentoring Matters Program is a new initiative at the College of Charleston. The program pairs incoming first-year African-American students with upperclassman students of color, or with faculty or staff members from a variety of racial or ethnic backgrounds. The program is housed in the Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services. One administrator is responsible for overseeing the Mentoring Matters Program and a faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education provides research support to the initiative.
The goal of the program is to provide new students with curricular and co-curricular support, offer resources for programming (e.g., career development, networking), and encourage personal growth as students begin their matriculation. The program begins in the fall semester and culminates three weeks prior to the end of spring semester. Students self-select to participate as mentees. No incentive is offered to mentors, other than giving back to the campus community by helping to integrate incoming students into the culture of the college. The Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services sends out a request for faculty, staff, and upperclassman participation and those who volunteer are asked to complete an application. The Office then makes a mentoring match based on common interests and academic content area.
Research Questions. The two research questions of interest in this study were:
- What are the experiences of first-year African-American students in the Mentoring Matters Program?
- Was the mentoring experience affected by the type of mentoring match?
In total, 90 students participated in the Mentoring Matters Program during its inaugural year. An e-mail message was sent to all participants asking them to complete an exit survey regarding their experiences in the program. Of the 90 students in the program, 58 submitted complete surveys for analysis. The numerical breakdown of the participants by gender was 81% female (n=47) and 19% males (n=11). As these were first-year students, major was not assessed since most were not ready to declare an official concentration at the end of the program. Mentorship was divided fairly evenly between student mentors (32%; n=19), faculty mentors (28%; n=16), and staff mentors (40%; n=23). The majority of all three types of mentors (88%) identified as people of color.
Data Collection and Analysis
An online survey was sent to all student participants requesting their responses to a 20-minute questionnaire. The survey had both open- and closed-ended responses to allow for a greater understanding of individuals’ experiences (Fowler, 2014). Students were asked questions such as how often they met with their mentor, the availability of their mentor, the types of concerns they would discuss, and how effective they felt the mentoring relationship was in helping them to transition to the college. Quantitative responses were analyzed through a statistical software program and are presented with descriptive statistics. Qualitative responses were analyzed through an open coding system. Students’ answers were read through one time for an initial sense of the data. Then, the research team went back and grouped similar ideas together and finally reduced them to specific themes and categories. Thematic groups are presented with quotations for emphasis (Creswell, 2013). The present study was fully vetted by the Institutional Review Board for ethical treatment of all participants. All data were de-identified prior to analysis and publication.
Findings from the survey showed students’ experiences could be categorized into three themes: accessibility and communication, academic and social support, and valuable support with the transition.
Accessibility and Communication
Almost half of the students met regularly with their mentors, most often 2-3 times per month (21%), with smaller numbers reporting meeting once a month (14%) and once a week (9%). One participant remarked, “Knowing that I could call or e-mail my mentor whenever I was having a difficult week made things easier knowing that someone was in my back corner.” Thirty-eight percent met only once or twice during the semester, typically for initial meetings and end-of-semester wrap up sessions. Of concern is the fact that 16% (n=9) of the students said they had never met with their mentor. One student who had a faculty mentor noted, “He’s not always in his office. It’s annoying.” When cross tabulation was employed, eight of the nine students who never met with their mentors were matched with upperclassmen. A mentee shared, “My mentor did not respond to my attempts to contact her.”
As a follow-up, students were asked about communication outside the traditional face-to-face model of mentoring. Alternative methods of communication included phone calls, texting, and e-mail. The majority of students said their mentor was “always” available (55%), although some said their mentor was “never” available (12%). A mentee shared, “We talked about everything together” while another noted, “[I liked]…having someone I could come talk to when things became overbearing.” Of the 19 mentees who had upperclassmen mentors, seven replied they were “never” available. Sixty-four percent of students with faculty or staff mentors felt they were “always” available.
Academic and Social Support
Academic issues were listed as the concern most often discussed with mentors (76%). Closely related to that idea, personal advising was mentioned by 53% of the respondents as a focus of their interactions with their mentor. One student said, “The most valuable part of this experience was getting insight into what the future holds for my major and having someone listen to me rant about my classes.” Closer analysis of the results showed that discussions of academic concerns were spread fairly evenly across mentor types; specifically, first-year students were just as likely to talk with faculty and staff about academic issues as they were upperclassmen mentors. Social issues were discussed by 52% of the student participants with their mentors. One student remarked, “Having her genuinely care about every issue that I had, no matter how little [meant a lot]. She also went out of her way getting me connected to people that I needed.”
In terms of efficacy of the mentor relationships, certain findings are of note. When broken out by type of mentor, those who had faculty or staff mentors were more likely to indicate the relationship was effective. Specifically, nine of the 19 students (47%) who had upperclassmen mentors rated the relationship as very ineffective, ineffective, or somewhat ineffective. One student maintained, “I couldn’t relate to my mentor at all.” Another noted, “We could have met more and tried to get to know each other’s lives better.” In contrast, 62% of student mentees with faculty or staff mentors reported the relationship as effective or very effective. A mentee with a student mentor communicated, “I believe my mentoring experience could have been improved if I was assigned an adult.”
Valuable Support with the Transition
Overall, the majority of students felt the mentoring relationship helped with their transition to college (66%). One mentee commented, “Because we met almost every week, it was something to keep me on track.” Furthermore, 60% regarded their mentoring relationship as good or excellent. Another student noted, “My mentor is one that I trust and feel that I can speak to about things that I go through as a student.” For this student mentee, the relationship mirrored one similar to a family member. They remarked, “Being able to build that relationship with an older individual [was valuable]. She’s a mom away from home.”
However, there were a number of students (34%) who felt their relationship with their mentor was non-existent, bad, or fair. Half of the students who were matched with an upperclassman rated their relationship with their mentor as non-existent. A first-year participant stated, “I was hopeful of a relationship with a mentor to guide me throughout the school year but, due to a lack of response, I didn’t have that experience.” When mentees were asked if they felt their mentor made the mentoring partnership a priority, 32% said not at all, with 47% of those responses coming from first-years paired with upperclassmen.
The purpose of this study was to explore the experiences of first-year students of color in a year-long mentoring program. Survey results revealed mixed findings. Overall, most students felt the mentoring they received helped them to adjust to university life. Academic concerns, personal concerns, and career guidance were the topics most students discussed with their mentors. Both closed- and open-ended questions showed students regarded the academic mentoring relationship as useful and beneficial during their transition. As research has demonstrated (Ishiyama, 2007; Strayhorn & Terrell, 2007), mentoring that focuses on structured academic support and research training may provide African-American students with the tools needed to successfully transition from high school to college. In the present study, students spoke of how working with their mentors allowed them insight into important academic and life skills such as study strategies and time management.
Another important finding was shown in the nature of the social relationships student mentees experienced. Many students felt the program mentors supported their growth and maturation by providing interpersonal support and guidance. As Guiffrida (2005) maintained, mentoring can provide a type of surrogate family member for African-American undergraduates. Students who are entering a new environment, who may be uncertain about how they will be accepted or perceived, need additional validation in the form of mentors who can connect with them in ways similar to their home setting. In the current study, this finding was evident when several students discussed how their mentor filled a role of friend, parent away from home, or one who “had their back.”
Other findings revealed that the majority of mentees who were paired with upperclassmen had a less favorable view of the mentoring experience. Specifically, issues of availability, communication, and personality conflicts peppered these students’ responses. These participants did not regard the mentoring relationship as a high priority because the tone from the outset was negative. Research from Colvin and Ashman (2010) highlighted some of these same concerns when facilitating peer mentoring programs. Students who agree to serve as mentors must be willing to make time to nurture the relationship and seek help when the connection cannot be made or is beginning to fray. Relationship clashes can also be remedied by re-assigning students to another mentee.
This study was conducted after the first year of the Mentoring Matters Program. As is the case with many new programs, there can be numerous moving parts that must be coordinated to ensure a positive outcome for all participants. The goal is to use the information from this study to improve the program and provide useful activities and support to both mentors and mentees. Based on these findings, it is clear that incorporating some degree of training for mentors would be advantageous. Even though more student mentees with upperclassmen had a less than satisfactory time in the program, training should be required for all mentors, including faculty and staff. In addition to mandatory training, mentors should submit monthly logs summarizing their mentoring sessions and what was accomplished during that period.
Mentoring takes time and a commitment on the part of each person to show up and be present in the process. Facilitating time management for both mentees and mentors is an area that could ameliorate the unfavorable experiences of some participants. The program could provide set times for all of the mentor pairs to meet and socialize during fun and informal activities (e.g., bowling) and to engage in more formal academic programs (e.g., brown bag research presentations).
Limitations and Future Research
Not all student participants completed the survey, so the experiences of the students who did not complete the study could differ substantially from those who did submit a survey. These students may have had positive mentoring relationships or their experience was so negative, they chose not to participate at all. Following up with these students would provide another layer of context to the study. Finally, perceptions of faculty, staff, and the upperclassmen mentors were not included in this study. Future research should consider obtaining data from these mentor groups to shed additional light on the nature of the mentoring matches.
Mentoring programs are useful ways to support students as they matriculate in postsecondary settings. For African-American students, the mentoring relationship can provide academic, social, and career guidance that is invaluable during the undergraduate years. This study revealed diverse experiences of student mentees in a year-long mentoring program. Administrators of the Mentoring Matters Program must review these data in an effort to provide incoming students with strong mentoring matches that will connect them to the institution and encourage their persistence to degree. Providing extensive training to mentors, hosting informal and formal events, and having all participants reflect on their experience in the program will give the institution insight into the utility of the program. As the face of undergraduate education continues to change, administrators, faculty and staff must prepare underrepresented students for academic and personal success. Mentoring programs can be a bridge to reach these students early to ensure a positive college experience.
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About the Author(s)
Dr. Keonya Booker is Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. Dr. Booker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ernest Brevard is the Campus Outreach and Student Development Coordinator with Multicultural Student Programs and Services at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. He can be reached at email@example.com.