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Written by Justin Preston

In an article published last year in the Washington Post, author and teacher Braden Bell provides some tips to parents and their children on ways to pursue and build mentoring relationships to help further develop themselves and their interests. As the move-in dates for many college students across the country are fast approaching, this seemed like a good time to revisit this advice and provide some additional input from across the web and what more recent research has shown us is effective in establishing meaningful mentoring relationships in college.

The first piece of advice provided by Bell is to signal interest. As Bell states, “Potential mentors are everywhere: teachers, coaches, neighbors and others. However, they probably have more potential mentees than they could effectively teach. Thus, it’s important to be present and signal interest. Talk with the professor after class. Ask the boss for coaching. Assist the teacher. Help the coach pick up the athletic equipment. Or just ask.”

While it seems pretty straightforward, working up the courage to make an opening bid for recruiting a mentor can be a major challenge in and of itself. It can also be a skill that not many youth have practiced regularly, or at all.

Programs such as Connected Scholars are attempting to address this issue by using systematic programming and instruction in skills such as developing an “elevator pitch”, professional methods for contacting potential mentors, and more. For more information on the Connected Scholars program, check out this website. The curriculum is continually undergoing rigorous evaluation, and results thus far have been promising.

The second piece of advice is for the youth to start small and do good work. Building up a mentoring relationship can be more of a journey than a destination, and such journeys start with less glamorous, perhaps even menial tasks. And that’s okay. These tasks can serve as a way of helping potential mentors get a sense of how committed their potential protégé is to establishing the relationship and engaging with the field. Such tasks, as Bell notes, “might also teach important skills” that are foundational to the youth’s development.

Building from the second piece of advice, Bell recommends that prospective protégés need to focus on being reliable. “Most mentoring relationships give a novice a chance to participate in the mentor’s professional life. That involves a great trust. Be respectful of a mentor’s work and reputation. Treat the experience as an honor and take care not to make the mentor look bad by doing shoddy work or embarrassing her,” Bell says.

Such work and reputation are often reflected in the people mentored by a professional, and adopting the mindset that the youth is not just representing themselves, but also those who have associated themselves with them, can be an important shift.

The next piece of advice is that youths remember to be teachable. Taking feedback can be a tough experience for youth, and differentiating between constructive and purely negative feedback can help the youth determine the best ways they themselves can provide critical insight as they develop in their professions. As Bell notes, “None of us enjoys being corrected, but learning to not argue with feedback is critical to growth.”

The final piece of advice offered by Bell is aimed squarely at the adults in the youth’s life: Don’t be intrusive. This includes not trying to “manage the process”, which Bell says includes things such as resisting the urge to promote the youth, allowing the potential mentor to do their own evaluation. This can extend to existing mentors, as well, who may feel the urge to help in material ways, such as helping with assignments and tasks.

The mentoring relationship can serve as a great context in which to practice skills like reaching out to potential academic or athletic mentors for the first time. In all of the excitement that comes with going off to college, recruiting mentors may not be at the top of the youth’s to-do list. Still, though, reaching out to mentors at their college or university can help your protégé get the most out of their college experience and pay dividends down the road when they are searching for work or looking to take the next step in their education.

This use of the mentoring relationship as a context for practice extends just as well to helping your protégé develop their ability to take feedback in a constructive manner, rather than seeing it as an indication that their efforts are a failure or a waste (a belief that may arise from an emphasis on perfectionism, which you can read more about here).

Another aspect of this process that is important to note is that mentors in different areas provide different kinds of needed support. As Jean Rhodes noted in a June editorial, youth often require support from a range of sources. Recognizing that piece can help your protégé understand that as well, impressing upon them the importance of fostering a broader social network that spans the different spheres of their life.

With the changes that come from going to college, whether for the first time or returning to continue their education, the support that existing mentors can provide can be critical. As mentors, though, you can also help to position your protégé to flourish academically, professionally, and personally as they develop their social networks.

Posted in the Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring; By Justin Preston, August 9, 2018