Sharon Parks on Good Mentoring

The word “mentor” is used promiscuously in our society, Sharon Daloz Parks remarked recently at a gathering of several dozen higher education professionals at Goshen College. Titled “The Heart of Higher Education: Living Between What Is and What Could Be” and sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal, the conference offered a venue for faculty, staff and administrators to engage in conversation over several days about what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap,” further circumscribed at this conference as “the tragic gaps in higher education.”

Parks’ talk, which she titled, “Working the Gap, With an Open Heart, an Informed Mind, and a Little Courage,” offered both analysis and words of hope. In it, she wove together many strands from her previous work on student development and meaning-making in the college years. The talk was a treasure trove of insights and research, and upon returning home I pulled her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams off my shelf to re-read portions of it. Here, I will focus on her comments about good mentoring.

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In praise of non-elite institutions

Dr. Katherine Maloney
Professor of Chemistry at Point Loma Nazarene University in CA

This spring, images of Hollywood stars ducking out of courtrooms accompanied astounding details of an admissions scandal that implicated several elite educational institutions. Some readers were horrified at the revelations while others categorized the pay-to-play schemes as part of a larger culture of corruption – why should higher education be immune? Whether you were surprised or not by the complicated details, it was difficult not to be disgusted. But Katherine Maloney, a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University who now teaches chemistry at Point Loma Nazarene University, had a slightly different response.

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Terrible advice

We frequently entreat students to “find their passion.” Indeed, the notion that there is one thing for which they are destined and which they must discover can figure centrally in our work with students. We put significant resources into tools that help them identify their strengths and personality traits (or types), yielding a set of descriptors that then inscribes how they understand themselves, as if that is the key to unlock the door of vocation. But, as a recent article in the “Smarter Living” section of the New York Times suggested, “Find Your Passion” is terrible advice.

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Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation

What myths about work and vocation do we convey when we talk with our students?

What lies might groups with different forms of privilege come to believe about themselves? When those lies are about their abilities and the horizons of possibility for their futures, how do they affect their sense of calling? These questions were posed by Christine Jeske of Wheaton College to a packed room of higher-ed professionals during a session held at the recent NetVUE gathering in Louisville. Trained as an anthropologist, Christine has previously worked on attitudes toward and myths about work in the South African context, where there is a stark disparity between rich and poor. But what myths about work do we convey here in the U.S. when we talk with students on vocation? And what are the unintended consequences of those problematic narratives? How can we tell a different narrative, one that more accurately represents the world in which our students will live? 

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The Massacre Generation

The annual “Mindset” list is an attempt to capture the milieu of the incoming class, offered to faculty and staff as a tool for understanding the new students arriving on campus. The class of 2022, we are told in this year’s list, have always been able to refer to Wikipedia and have lived in a world where same-sex marriage is legal somewhere. The world they know does not include Enron but has always included a vehicle known as a Prius and a television show called Survivor. Most of the 60 factoids on the list are light-hearted, referring to popular culture and some to political events.

But there, at number 4, is an item one could easily miss if breezing through the list. Nestled between the observation about Wikipedia and an image of people appearing to “talk to themselves” in public, is this statement: “They have grown up afraid that a shooting could happen at their school, too.”

A vigil in Parkland, Fla., after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

The class of 2022 has lived in a world where mass shootings are recurring events. They have lived with a fear that it could happen to them at any time. Continue reading

Who mentors? New data on mentoring

The results of a new poll show that faculty members play a primary role when it comes to mentoring most students. The new study was conducted by Strada Education Network and Gallup, drawing from a survey of over 5,100 U.S. college graduates in 2018. Among the key findings includes this fact:

Professors are the predominant source of undergraduate mentorship. Nearly two-thirds of recent graduates who agree or strongly agree that they had a mentor during college say that mentor was a professor (64%). 

However, important caveats to that also came to light, revealing disparities in the experiences among students, depending upon ethnicity and background:

First-generation college student (FGCS) and minority graduates who had a mentor are less likely than their counterparts to identify their mentor as a professor, though professors still remain the primary source of mentorship for both groups. While nearly three-quarters of white graduates say their mentor was a professor (72%), less than half of minority graduates say the same (47%). Two-thirds of non-FGCS graduates say their mentor was a professor, compared with 61% of FGCS graduates.

Who is doing the mentoring?

Graduates’ professor mentors were most likely to come from an arts and humanities field: 43% of those who had a professor mentor during college say their mentor taught a subject in arts and humanities, followed by science and engineering professors (28%), social sciences professors (20%), and business professors (9%).

We know from previous surveys that a close relationship with a mentor was one of the strongest factors related to engagement and well-being after graduation. According to the 2014 study:

The three most potent elements linked to long-term success for college grads relate to emotional support: feeling that they had a professor who made them excited about learning, that the professors at their alma mater cared about them as a person, and that they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. If graduates strongly agree with these three things, it doubles the odds they are engaged in their work and thriving in their overall well-being.

So what might these new results mean for institutions that are committed to fostering a culture of vocational discernment for their students? Some initial thoughts:

  • Colleges and universities should think carefully about where vocation programs are housed on campus.
  • Given the prominent role that faculty play in mentoring for many(but not all) students, they might use their influence to encourage students to seek out mentoring from other sources as well.
  • We cannot assume that faculty-to-student mentoring is occurring; we should not assume that all students are getting the support they need.
  • We must diversify the faculty if we care about mentoring all of our students.

For a short summation of the findings of the poll, see this week’s Chronicle coverage – the article includes helpful graphics to convey some of the key points. Insider Higher Ed has an even briefer “quick take” on the survey. To download the full report, see the 2018 Strada Gallup Alumni Survey.

Local Heroes

When she was 16 years old, Deirdre Sullivan’s father insisted that she go to the funeral of her 5th grade math teacher. She complained and resisted, but her father was adamant. Always go to the funeral, he instructed her: “Do it for the family.”

Her father’s advice is the focus of Sullivan’s widely read “This I Believe” essay, part of the collection assembled by National Public Radio between 2005-2009 when it rebooted the 1950s series hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Hundreds of similar essays, written by famous artists, scientists, educators, athletes and politicians as well as by unknown people who responded to the invitation to compose an essay, can be accessed through the This I Believe website. It is a treasure trove for short readings that can be used to prompt discussion about life, meaning, and purpose. Asking students to write their own “This I Believe” essay (and then to share them aloud with their classmates) can be a very effective exercise. It’s especially powerful when the professor shares his or her own essay. Continue reading