Beyond “warm and fuzzy” mentoring

To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, “Mentoring kids is a difficult matter. / It isn’t just one of your holiday games.” Many obstacles confront undergraduate advising and mentoring. Faculty are pressed for time and advising often becomes a mere cog in the course registration machine. Colleges sell meaningful mentoring to students but rarely offer the needed resources to support robust advising. Students expect ready answers and affirming words — they want their advising to be “warm and fuzzy.”

Moreover, we tend to think of advising and mentoring as an individualistic endeavor; its goals include helping the student to navigate college and to find a personally suitable direction in life. But what if we looked beyond the student’s life-long personal fulfillment, and sought to make mentoring a socially transformative endeavor? What would this require of our institutions and our programs? How might the advising process move students to consider the common good, to engage more seriously with issues of systemic justice?

Shelli Poe, assistant professor of religious studies, Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi

This is the challenge posed by Shelli Poe’s recent post to Religion and Its Publics, titled “Using Religion? Higher Ed, Vocation, and Systemic Justice.” She argues that Schleiermacher, rather than the hyper-heroic version of calling drawn from Luther, is the needed antidote when it comes to the vocational inquiry of millennials: “Schleiermacher’s way of thinking might encourage students to avoid individualistic characterizations of self and one’s relation to the world, and atomistic understandings of social forces.” We need to help them begin to see that the world is “unfathomably complex” — as is its “deep hunger,” to borrow Frederick Buechner’s oft-used construction. Unfortunately, helping students become better attuned to the world’s complexity (and the reality of their being embedded in that complexity) is inversely related to helping them feel “unique” and “special.” It certainly isn’t warm and fuzzy.

To Shelli’s insightful comments, I would add that we need to attend to the question of timing. Students in their first year are making a (sometimes difficult) transition and are often overwhelmed. Seniors are likewise overwhelmed, hustling to secure internships or fellowships, paid employment, or entrance to graduate school or professional degree programs.

This leaves sophomores and juniors, who seem to have the needed solidity and hunger for asking “big questions.” They appear to be the best target then for vocation-focused programs. But if, as Shelli has suggested, vocational discernment must be part and parcel of a larger process of wrestling with the complexity of social relations and structures, then it must begin as early as the first year.

For similar reasons, the vocational discernment of students should not be isolated into only curricular or only co-curricular programming. The limits of campus resources and the realities of campus politics often dictate that “vocation” is housed in a particular arena. Still, many NetVUE institutions have taken up the challenge of weaving vocational language (and inquiries) into both the academic and student-life divisions of the institution. This is difficult work, requiring many years of cross-campus conversation and planning. But when it is done well — with substance and some consistency — the effect on students can be truly transformative. Approached in the terms that Shelli has suggested, the vocational discernment of individual students is bound up with many of the goals of a liberal arts education — and not just the promise of a “fulfilling life” for the individual.

Attending to these questions also requires multiple, overlapping sites of mentoring. Of course, students often name one or two particular mentors who have had a major impact during their four years. But the reality is that, if vocational inquiry is to take on the transformative aspect that Shelli is suggesting, it will require an array of input from different mentors. These include not only faculty and “official” academic advisors, but also organizational advisors, coaches, departmental office managers, student life personnel, chaplains, and many others.

Some of these mentors will help students put pieces together, but others will do the equally important work of challenging students’ worldview, their privileges, and their horizons. As Shelli says, it will not always be “warm and fuzzy.” Equally important, mentors need to recognize (and appreciate) that a network of mentoring is operating for every student. We need to avoid the temptation of desiring to be the singular, identifiable (“heroic”) mentor.

But there is an even sharper cut made by Shelli’s incisive words. She writes that students must come to see that “identifying the confluence of their ‘deep gladness’ and the ‘world’s deep need’ is exceedingly difficult and has nothing to do with being adequately equipped for a career within that confluence” (my emphases). Her observation interrogates not only this particular generation of students (the so-called and often maligned “millennials”) but also our institutions.

In particular: as we develop vocational discernment programs and as we make vocation language more central to our campus cultures (as many of us have done), have we promised more than we can deliver? Have we fallen prey to promising students that they will, in Shelli’s words, “find their true, God-given, unique calling, in just four years’ time”? Is that what we are selling? As the value of higher education continues to be under attack, we need to proceed with caution about how our programs get sold, what we promise to students, and what messages we convey about their (and our) purported uniqueness.

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