A November Napa Valley Register headline about the passing of St. Helena’s Bill Connolly referred to him as a mentor. In the classic Greek myth, as Odysseus, King of Ithaca, prepared to go off to fight the Trojan War, he asked his loyal friend Mentor to advise and guide his son, Telemachus, during his absence.
British Professor Helen Colley describes Mentor as a wise and kindly elder, a surrogate parent, a trusted adviser, an educator and guide, who possessed “a visionary perception” of the young man’s true potential.
Michael Gastelum, owner of St. Helena Fitness, said Bill Connolly was a mentor and a second father, adding, “Without his mentorship, l would not be the person I am today.”
In my work, I have been asked how mentoring can be distinguished from counseling, coaching or academic advising.
According to the American Counseling Association, “Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”
Much as athletic coaches prepare student-athletes for contests, academic coaches focus on improving skills and performance essential to success, such as time management, goal-setting or preparing more effectively for tests.
Students are usually assigned to academic advisors, whose primary responsibility is ensuring that students meet institutional degree requirements. Peggy King, past President of the National Academic Advising Association, adds, “Academic advising emphasizes student learning and educational experiences that connect students’ academic interests and skills with their personal and career goals.”
Allison McWilliams, Director of Mentoring at Wake Forest University, and her colleague, Lauren Beam, write that mentoring in higher education is rooted in informal relationships that develop between faculty and graduate students. Mentoring leads students to “internalize behavioral norms and standards and form a sense of identity and commitment” to their field of study and profession.
Undergraduate mentoring programs emerged on college campuses in the late 1970s and are once again gaining attention. The cover story in the most recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education cites Gallup research finding that students who have mentors are more successful in college. Furthermore, they are also twice as likely to be engaged at work and thriving after completing their studies.
Nonetheless, that study found only 22 percent of undergrads had mentors and concluded that life-changing mentoring relationships seem “dizzyingly random” and happen by chance.
While students can be assigned to an advisor or a coach and encouraged to meet with a counselor, the question remains, can a meaningful relationship with a mentor be engineered? Mentoring isn’t just about the right student finding the right teacher; it’s also about the right teacher finding the right student. Because mentoring is a trust-based relationship, “chemistry” plays an important role.
Unfortunately, too many college students find it difficult to find faculty mentors. A primary reason is that most campus recognition and reward systems do not adequately value the time faculty spend engaged with students beyond the classroom. Second is the fact that the greatest inequity on our nation’s campuses may be the unequal ability students have to get others interested in them.
In her TED talk, Loyola Marymount University Professor Ellen Ensher provides advice to help students find a mentor. She says the first step is for them to understand what their strengths are and areas where they need to grow. This allows students to provide potential mentors with detailed descriptions of how they can best be of help.
Professor Ensher advises students to have the courage to take the initiative to connect with potential mentors — and she recommends having more than one — including former and current professors, alums, family or community members.
Athena, the Greek goddess of Wisdom, sometimes disguised herself as Mentor to provide guidance to Telemachus, and Professor Colley refers to her “inspirational character, selfless caring, and self-sacrificing commitment” to go above and beyond as essential qualities of a true mentor.
General Colin Powell observes that mentors make important contributions by helping young people develop skills and increase their confidence and hope for the future. He says adults often get as much, if not more, from mentoring knowing they are helping young people by providing guidance that helps them on the path to success.
January is National Mentoring Month and the words of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh might inspire us: There are within each person the seeds of who they might become. All they need is for one person to water the seeds of their goodness and help them achieve their highest potential.
Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He is currently a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to help more students to succeed. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to email@example.com.