Online students often juggle school, work, and family commitments. These busy schedules can result in common challenges ranging from staying motivated in their academic programs to making decisions about their paths after graduation. If you are facing similar issues, working with a mentor who provides guidance and advice can be a positive move.
January 2014 is National Mentoring Month, a great time to explore not only what mentorship is, but also how it could be useful in the context of online learning. How can mentoring help you meet your education and career goals? While it is not a new concept, advances in communication and learning technologies offer better ways for online mentors and mentees to connect at a distance (also known as eMentoring).
What is a mentor? The role of mentor is generally recognized as that of an expert who is willing to guide a beginner. This type of relationship can take place at work, in school, as well as in your community. As you read this you may already have someone in mind, who has provided helpful advice to you in the past, or who you would like to consult in the future.
While faculty members, academic advisors, career counselors, and other professionals at your institution provide essential support, a mentor’s advice can augment this and often provide a more objective perspective.
What are your responsibilities as a mentee?
Educator Steve Blank describes mentoring as different from teaching and coaching. Your role here is not as a student or team member, but as a participant in an ongoing process of providing/receiving guidance. When you are working with a mentor you are in a “two-way” relationship that includes “a back and forth dialog.” Be prepared to contribute questions, answers, and resources along the way. Ideally, the relationship evolves to become one of colleagues.
What you can expect from a positive mentoring relationship?
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Graduate Mentoring Guidebook includes a helpful list of the “basics of good mentoring.” While this guide is geared toward academic connections and in-person communication, I think the information translates well to a wider range of contexts and environments. Here are a few of the characteristics you can look for:
- Ongoing conversations: to address questions, share resources, and track progress.
- Demystification: of relevant processes in school and employment scenarios.
- Feedback and encouragement: to help you move forward and overcome challenges.
- Networking: with other students and professionals, and larger communities offering additional guidance and expertise.
- Support: for your interests and learning opportunities as an advocate for you in the process of reaching your goals.
- Respect: through a professional approach and commitment to relationship building.
Let’s take a closer look at the relevance of mentoring in online learning and career development through examples of formal programs and informal connections.
Mentoring in Higher Education
Online learning provides great opportunities for mentorship relationships. In addition to faculty mentors, as presented above by the University of Nebraska, you may find a variety of additional resources of guidance in your online program.
- Academic Mentors: Western Governors University matches students with mentors at the course and program level with the goal of seeing learners through to graduation. This support takes place in one-on-one and group activities designed to ensure each student has the information and resources needed to succeed.
- Peer Mentors: Being a new online student can be overwhelming, but programs are in place at many schools to ease your transition into the learning environment. Regent University’s Online Peer Mentorship Program matches upperclassmen who already “know the ropes” with incoming students. Walla Walla Community College’s Online Student Peer Mentors are a group of experienced students available to help others with general questions, course navigation, technology problems, and more.
Mentoring and Career Development
Careers and higher education are often connected, especially for students who enrolled in their programs with employment goals in mind. Sometimes a strong faculty mentorship continues after graduation, but there are additional ways to build these kinds of relationships once you are on-the-job.
- New Professionals: Mentoring programs that focus specifically on supporting those who may be new to their career field can ease the transition from school to work. The New Teacher Center is a nonprofit group with a mission to “accelerate the effectiveness of new teachers and school leaders.” The e-Mentoring for Student Success (eMSS) program connects experienced and new teachers who are teaching the same grade and subject.
- Networking and Skill Development: Professional networking is just one objective of the Institute of Food Technologists eCareerMentors program. Participating members are encouraged to share their knowledge of the industry and career opportunities through formal mentorship relationships. Benefits of these connections reach to all levels of the organization, and often result in enhanced communication, listening, questioning, and interaction skills.
Find a Mentor
Sometimes mentoring relationships just happen. You work with someone, as an instructor or in the workplace, whose approach fits well with yours and who has an interest in helping you grow. But often we have to work at it and making these connections at a distance can be tricky. Here are a few resources to help you get started.
- Alumni Associations: Previous graduates who are active alumni often volunteer to work with students through formal mentoring programs. Penn State’s LionLink and the University of Phoenix Alumni Career Mentor Program are two examples. Check with your school’s alumni office to find out more about these programs and tips for contacting alumni listed in their directories.
- Mentorship Organizations: StudentMentor is a nonprofit organization that connects college students with experienced professionals through a service that matches interests in education and careers. You can register for this free program online. MentorNet is a similar service with a new program launch planned for March 2014.
- Social Media: LinkedIn’s focus on professional networking and community building establishes a good place to connect with a mentor. Look for opportunities to meet leaders in your field and alumni through formal Groups and University Pages.
- Ask! Talk with your instructors and advisors in your school’s career center to let them know you are interested in finding out more about mentorships. They can help you tap into resources at your institution and within their professional networks.
Become a Mentor
Are you an experienced online student or graduate who had to figure it out on your own? What would a mentor’s guidance have meant to you? You may also reach a point as a mentee when you realize you have something to give back. Being a mentor is a way to share what you know, and help those who are following in your footsteps. Seek out opportunities to work with others in your:
- Courses: Check with your instructors and advisors to find out more about formal and informal ways you could serve as a peer mentor.
- Community: Use MENTOR.org’s zip code tool to locate mentorship opportunities in your local area.
- Career: Connect with your industry’s professional associations and initiatives at your current company to become a source of advice for others working in your field.
Whether you are interested in becoming a mentor or in finding a mentor, the process takes some initiative. Research the options available and then reach out to get the conversations started.
Source: Inside Online Learning Blog