Historians trace mentoring back to Greek Mythology; the first mentor was a friend of Odysseus. Before he set sail for the Trojan War, the legendary Greek king entrusted Mentor to raise his young son while he was away. Mentor’s name would later enter the lexicon of many European languages to describe “a trusted guide or counselor to someone less experienced.”
Today, Mentor’s legacy extends into nearly every facet of society, particularly in areas of personal growth and career development for youth and young adults. But the nature of these relationships tend to vary, depending largely on age, experience, and mutual expectation. In higher education, where mentoring plays an increasing role, many institutions recognize sociologist Morris Zelditch’s oft-cited definition of mentors and their many roles:
“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.” - National Academies of Science Engineering Medicine
The Mentoring Effect
In general, an effective mentoring relationship can be characterized as a guiding relationship in which a more experienced person—such as a faculty member or alum—helps a student gain confidence, insight, and knowledge to set him or her up for personal and professional success. For students or young alumni just starting out in their careers, mentors serve as a valuable resource for advice on a number of issues ranging from switching majors and academic counseling to proper interview etiquette and securing internships.
The effects of a powerful mentor cannot be overstated. Oprah credits her mentor, Maya Angelou, with guiding her through “the most important years of [her] life.” Mark Zuckerberg thanked his mentor, Steve Jobs, for “showing that what you build can change the world.” And without Benjamin Mays, then— president of Morehouse College, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. may have never embraced nonviolence in his activism.
Student Success Outcomes
For college students, having a mentor or an experienced role model to cultivate their talent and provide ongoing support can similarly make a life-changing impact on both their academics and post-collegiate futures. Time and time again, studies show effective mentoring confers numerous benefits, notably in areas of retention, academic performance, employment, and overall social welfare. First-year students who have mentors are vastly more likely to return to college for a second year.
Students who have faculty mentors perform better academically and are more satisfied with college life, retention, and their educational and career goals. Both undergraduate and graduate students report that mentoring helped them learn and develop skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.
Graduate students with mentors are more likely to feel satisfied with their programs, be involved in professional organizations, and have a stronger sense of professional identity. College graduates who had mentors encourage them to pursue their ambitions are nearly twice as likely to be engaged at work and thrive in all areas of well-being than those without mentors. Young people with mentors experience more “intrinsic” career rewards, such as authority and autonomy, which make work more personally fulfilling and lead to long-term career success.
The Power of Representation
Also worth noting is the powerful impact mentoring has on leveling the playing field for traditionally at-risk cohorts, such as first- generation students, minorities, and women in traditionally male-dominated majors. First-generation students with mentors are more likely to succeed academically and stay in school than those without mentors. Minority students who have mentors are twice as likely to stay in school and earn better grades than minority students who do not have mentors.
Female engineering majors with female peer mentors are significantly more likely to report higher self-esteem, motivation, and willingness to stay in their majors than those with male peer mentors or no mentors at all.
Mentoring Improves Metrics
At a high level, institutions also profit from successful mentoring outcomes. To determine its annual collegiate rankings, U.S. News & World Report factors in retention, graduation rates, faculty resources, and student programs—all of which are influenced by campus mentoring programs.
The advantages of mentoring are undoubtedly compelling, but the sobering reality is that the vast majority of college students do not have access to effective or adequate mentoring programs, and, in turn, are not afforded their benefits. In fact, according to the Gallup- Purdue study, only 22 percent of college graduates say they had “a mentor who encouraged [them] to pursue [their] goals and dreams.” This disparity in access to quality mentoring results in a significant Mentoring Gap.