Colleges are more than departments, buildings, and classrooms. They are organizations made up of resources and relationships. Supportive relationships on campus generate such valuable resources that we shouldn’t sit idly by and wait for them to form. By proactively investing in a relational scaffolding that guides and supports students as they progress toward their goals, colleges will leave fewer students behind.
Decades of research demonstrate positive relationships between interactions with supportive adults and student persistence and engagement. We are even seeing an increase in student satisfaction. Long-term mentor / mentee relationships are especially valuable. Mentors serve as key resource brokers, providing tangible resources such as letters of recommendation, written comments, and presentations to contacts. They also provide important intangible resources in the form of encouragement, advice and advocacy.
Unfortunately, mentor / mentee relationships and the resources they generate are not evenly distributed. In the recent Student Voice survey by Inside higher education and College Pulse, 44 percent of students said they did not have a mentor on campus. When asked to identify the top barriers they faced in finding a mentorship, the top two responses to the survey, supported by Kaplan, were ‘Don’t know how to find one’ (55%) and “I don’t know what I would ask a mentor” (45%).
These responses underscore the ambiguous nature of relationship building with authority figures in college. College staff and faculty often tell students to “get to know their teachers,” but the How? ‘Or’ What is rarely explained. And ambiguity breeds inequality.
When the path to obtaining a mentor is unclear, students rely on past socialization experiences at home and at school to engage authority figures. Middle-class students (and the small number of low-income students who attended elite high schools) are often trained to use assertiveness strategies. These strategies earn middle-class students rewards and help from time-strapped teachers. In contrast, low-income students who have been socialized to employ independent deference strategies keep their distance from authority figures and lose key resources and rewards.
As a longtime mentor of an inspiring and tenacious group of Mississippi first generation low income students (LIFGs), I understand why students are reluctant to hire faculty and staff. Worried about the perception of their influence and fearful of losing face, they wait and observe the signals that professors and staff send them concerning the rules of engagement. But these signals are often vague and contradictory.
In our weekly small group calls, we often discuss issues such as:
- What do you do when a faculty member encourages you to ask for help but hasn’t responded to multiple emails you’ve sent about an upcoming assignment?
- How do you reject an advisor’s suggestion without damaging your reputation with them?
- What life situations count as personal emergencies and should be shared with your instructor?
As parents of continuing high-income generation students guide them on how to navigate institutional, academic and social ambiguity, LIFG students rely on their universities to provide clarity and support.
Over the past seven years as the head of the Sunflower County Freedom Project Alumni Success Program, I have seen how some universities are doing well. Three of my students attend Berea College, where 98% of students receive Pell Scholarships and the student experience is highly directed and structured. All students are assigned a first year advisor, who is also the teacher for their first year writing course. Interactions with teachers and staff are frequent and integrated into the extracurricular experience. All students have jobs on campus, and those jobs can change each year and students can advance in seniority, so they get to know a variety of academic staff and faculty.
While Berea is unique, more traditional universities can also proactively support mentoring relationships. In a comparative study of a flagship university and a regional educational institution, sociologist Mary Scherer of Sam Houston State University found that while working-class students were less likely to train teacher mentors in a ” flagship ‘research-oriented, they were just as likely as their upper-class peers to develop mentors in a’ regional ‘focused teaching. Professors in the region reduced models of in-class mentoring by proactively supporting all of their students: they offered to write letters of recommendation, invited students to join research groups, and interacted with them frequently by class.
Unfortunately, this type of proactive culture of student support and mentoring is underestimated in academia. Teaching, and certainly not mentoring, will neither make nor destroy a tenure-track candidate. This places the onus on service-oriented faculty, and particularly those from historically marginalized groups, to shoulder a disproportionate share of the mentoring work. Serving as a mentor is very rewarding and takes time.
Universities can support mentoring by investing both in mentoring programs that target LIFG students and reward mentors for their work. One university I recently studied rewards professors who mentor first-generation students with a course drop after two years of participating in the program.
While creating a formal mentoring program is a good start, it does not guarantee that strong mentor / mentee relationships will be formed.
When I first followed participants to two LIFG student success programs at a regional university in their first year, I found that when students needed guidance, they favored relationships rather than relationships. roles. Although all of the students had an assigned Success Advisor, only those students who had developed a strong and trusting relationship with their assigned coach sought help from them. Others sought help from family, friends, or teachers they trusted.
In addition, the structure of the program was essential; One program’s mandatory bi-weekly meeting structure facilitated more cohesive relationships between staff and students than the other’s membership structure.
For all students to enjoy supportive relationships with faculty and university staff, first-year courses, experiences, and programs must be structured to include cohesive and supportive interactions with adults.
This research highlights two key recommendations. Trusted relationships with academic staff and faculty can serve as a key mediator between LIFG students and the inequitable and opaque campus environment they encounter. However, these relationships will not form by magic.
First, for all As students enjoy supportive relationships with faculty and university staff, first-year courses, experiences, and programs should be structured to include consistent and supportive interactions with adults. The staff, faculty and administrators who oversee, support and staff these courses and programs should be rewarded symbolically and materially. Through class exits, influence at decision-making tables, “impact bonuses” and public validation, effective mentors must be visible and valued on campus.
Second, given that many LIFG students do not participate in formal support programs, the emphasis on relationship building should permeate university culture at large. Universities can do this by training all faculty and staff in contact with students to serve as mentors to an economically and racially diverse student body.
Higher education officials believe that becoming an excellent researcher requires years of rigorous training, yet teaching and mentoring are seen as easy to understand on the job. This is not only inaccurate but insulting to professionals who have spent years honing these complex and difficult skills. While this cultural shift takes time, university leaders have the opportunity to establish mentorship and relationship building as key strategic goals on their own campuses. Those who do will take a crucial step towards advancing equity.