A mentor is more than just an adviser. Older faculty can be ideal for the role, but they deserve compensation.
The word “mentor” derives from the name of the adviser to King Telemachus in Greek mythology, yet mentors figure prominently in all world literature. As a child, I heard many such stories from my grandmother as she recounted the Indian epics. The god Krishna became the powerful mentor of Arjuna during the famous war in the Bhagavad-Gita, while in Ramayana, the monkey Hanuman was the faithful mentee of the banished prince Rama. It was from my grandmother that I gained my first lesson on such matters: to be a mentor, you must be both teacher and friend.
Today, college students often need the helping hand of a real, human guide. This is particularly true during the first and final years of undergraduate studies, when a student is either adjusting to the transition from high school or trying to determine a career path. In most engineering schools, a student counselor or a faculty adviser assists with course selections and may also conduct exit interviews before graduation. While this help is important, students wrestling with difficult decisions often need a more intimate guide, someone who can provide inspiration on both a personal and professional level.
A mentor’s job combines several roles. As described by sociologist Morris Zelditch of the American Council of Graduate Schools, mentors are “advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge; supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement; tutors, people who give specific feedback on one’s performance; masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed; sponsors, sources of information about and aid in obtaining opportunities; models, of identity, of the kind of person one should be to be an academic.”
To learn more about effective mentoring, I conducted a study of practices at several engineering schools of similar size both in Puerto Rico and mainland USA. I used standard qualitative research methods, such as interviews, questionnaire surveys and fax and e-mail messages from deans and chairpersons. Here are some of the findings:
Mentoring takes time. A professor mentor needs to supervise a student throughout an undergraduate program, not just for one or two semesters. The most effective mentors, those who leave a permanent stamp on their students, are typically senior faculty members with years of professional and academic experience. Many of them are no longer actively involved in research, and so have more time for mentoring. They are also not worried about publishing in refereed journals, getting research grants or winning promotion or tenure. Such senior faculty members should receive a financial incentive or compensatory release time for their work in advising students.
Peer mentoring among undergraduates, if designed, implemented and executed properly, can help improve a student’s overall academic and extracurricular performance—not just grades. Students meet more often with their peers than with their professors, and their schedules outside the classroom are more flexible than the strict “office hours” of their instructors. In addition, students tend to be more open-minded and honest with their peers and thus able to build a relationship of trust.
With the growing international population at our colleges, special attention should be given to the particular needs of these students. Ideally, foreign students should be mentored by someone with international experience to help alleviate the varying effects of culture shock.
As I investigated these various aspects of mentoring, my grandmother’s stories echoed in my memory, reminding me of a key principle. Above all, a mentor’s guiding maxim should be the familiar saying, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Jay Banerjee is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.