Whether it’s preparing students to pursue the career of their dreams or connecting alumni with students or peers to network within their chosen field, university mentoring programs are vital to the academic ecosystem.
Academic mentoring can help increase student persistence, alumni connection and academic donorship. A recent survey by Inside Higher Ed found three-quarters of students needed, or would want, career advice from a mentor. With the help our our mentoring experts, we’ve curated these tips to help you design, launch and scale effective mentoring programs.
1. Define your university mentoring program objectives and secure leadership support
You would be surprised by the number of university mentorship programs without clear objectives or strong buy-in. Such programs often struggle because there is no consensus of what success looks like for students and alumni participants. Good objectives are SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. For example, “The goal of our mentoring program is to prepare students to enter the workforce and have 90% of senior-status program participants placed in a full-time job within 4 months of graduating.” Objectives provide direction to program participants and help departmental staff and professors understand why they should offer their support. Make sure to identify a senior leader, such as a dean or director of student services who strongly believes in the program, who is willing to serve as a mentoring champion. This person will prove to be a critical resource and advocate for program participation and resources.
2. Find a strong, passionate program admin
Selecting the right program director is critical to your university mentoring program. A strong program director doesn’t guarantee success, but a weak one will guarantee underwhelming results. Program directors provide essential ongoing support, training and advising to participants. They identify opportunities to engage students and alumni and troubleshoot issues, working with others within career services to make ongoing adjustments to keep the program thriving. They are also instrumental in promoting the program to potential participants and serve as the programs’ ambassador to the department or college. Passion, excellent communication, and organizational skills are a must. Those within career services will often have experience guiding and advising students to help them find mentors.
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3. Build flexibility into your university mentoring programs
Successful university mentoring programs balance the dueling needs of structure and flexibility. A level of formality is needed within the mentoring process, participant training, progress tracking, and communication to help the program run smoothly. Yet mentoring is about individual student learning and growth, which means participant needs will vary in outcomes sought and preferred methods of learning. When planning a mentoring program, identify areas that require flexibility and build them into the program. Many university programs have a blended structure, whereby they allow students and alumni more flexibility in scheduling, in order to build stronger relationships and open communication in less formal settings.
4. Put your marketing hat on
When new university mentoring programs are introduced, there’s generally natural enthusiasm and interest. Yet this enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into high participation rates. A common reason is the absence of effective promotion. Don’t assume potential alumni mentors and student mentees understand the benefits. For many, this will be their first opportunity to participate in mentoring. You will need to convince them participating is worth their time and effort through testimonial videos and info sessions. If you need ideas, check out our toolkit for promoting your mentoring program. Beyond participants, key leaders and faculty need to be educated on the benefits of the program and professional value to the students. Promotional avenues can include using a variety of student and alumni media resources, such as student newspapers, websites, social media pages, and student organization partnerships.
5. Think win-win
Consider the needs of the alumni mentors. Building a solid base of mentors can be a challenge. A key is to understand the positive and negative factors that impact alumni participation. Connect with alumni through respective alumni organizations and identify their needs and issues. Once you have identified them, look for creative ways to reinforce positive drivers and lower the hurdles of negative ones throughout the mentoring process. For example, alumni mentors are often busy professionals with limited time to spend. How can you help mentors be more efficient with the time they have to dedicate to mentoring students? Also consider recognition and reward strategies for alumni participants.
6. Prepare participants for success
Productive mentoring doesn’t just happen. Provide training and administrative support to mentors and mentees regarding the programs’ and individuals’ goals, participant roles, mentoring best practices, and your mentoring process. Help mentors and mentees develop and clarify their own objectives. The need for advising and guidance doesn’t end after the initial orientation. Provide tips and best practices throughout your mentorship program to help participants stay on track and get the most out of the program. Utilize platforms such as social media, group lectures and webinars for alumni and students to participate in as opportunities for further engagement and learning from the mentoring process.
7. Embrace the role of matchmaker
For mentoring to thrive, a solid relationship needs to form between the professional mentor and student mentee. A critical step in the mentoring process is matching mentors to mentees. Consider giving students a say in the matching process by allowing them to select a particular mentor or list their top three choices based on their desired career industry. Mentoring software can improve and speed up the matching process for any size program, especially with a large volume of students. Through intelligent profile matching functionality, suitable mentors are recommended based on students’ professional career aspirations and personality compatibility.
8. Track, measure, listen & tune
How will you know if your university mentoring program is a success? You won’t unless you track program and connection metrics and ask for feedback. At the program level, build metrics around defined objectives (see Tip #1 above). Also, be sure to assess the outcomes of individual mentor and mentee connections. One of the easiest ways to measure success and capture feedback is through surveys. Ask participants and stakeholders how well the mentoring program met their goals and the goals of the university. Also ask them for their ideas for improving the program.
9. Bring closure to individual mentoring connections
Mentoring is similar in the sense that without defining a closure point, the mentoring process can wander aimlessly. As a mentoring connection progresses, work with the mentor and mentee to identify mileposts that indicate when mutually established goals have been reached. Establish a formal process that brings closure to the mentoring experience. Within this process, provide an opportunity for both the mentor and mentee to reflect upon what was learned, discuss next steps for the mentee, and provide feedback.
10. Broadcast university mentoring program success
After a mentoring program begins, the focus naturally shifts into operating the program and keeping it running smoothly. Keep in mind, there are likely many more potential student participants out there waiting for signs that joining the program is worth their time and effort. Continually demonstrate the value of the program, recognize participant contributions, and spotlight successes. Update websites and social media pages with highlights from effective student-alumni partnerships. These efforts will bring energy to the program, expand participation, and increase overall support within the university.
11. Start the process over
When running a mentoring program, nothing is ever one and done. Once you’ve completed your first round of these best practices, start back at step one and run through the cycle again. Running a successful university mentoring program requires a holistic, repetitive approach in order to maintain impact and momentum.
Now that you’ve learned a few best practices for making your university mentorship program a success, we hope you’ll consider Chronus mentoring software as your program management tool to easily start, manage, and measure mentoring programs. With Chronus, you can drive participant engagement while simplifying program administration, resulting in a more engaging, cost-effective student mentoring experience. This configurable, cloud-based solution is ideal for corporations, government entities, academic institutions, or professional associations.
Editor’s Note: This post was has been updated from its original publication for accuracy and comprehensiveness.