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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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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Making hard choices: the importance of deciding, not deferring

One of the most interesting parts of working with college students is the palpable potential of a future unknown. Anticipation of what is still to come is often innate in many students seeking their liberal arts and professional degrees.  With that can come a great deal of uncertainty, but also there are wonderful opportunities to use decisions for the realization of that unknown future. Yet, I have noticed sometimes students seek a “solution” to hard decisions by finding a way to say yes to everything. They defer decision-making for as long as they can. And I have noticed that my own skepticism regarding this tendency to try to “do it all” has become stronger over the years, leading me to wonder if I should take a more firm stance, pushing them to make the hard choices.   

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Please steal this assignment.

As I discussed in a previous post, while we rarely use the word “vocation” among our students at Blackburn, vocation nevertheless stands as a General Education Program Student Learning Outcome. Each semester, I teach two courses that fit within this outcome, and I love it. I constantly tinker with the content of these classes to try to find one more reading, one more tool, or one more high impact moment to reach students and help them more deeply engage in the mystery of their personal calling. In this post, I want to share my very best assignment, the one that has proven to prompt the most growth for the most students the most quickly. I share it here for two reasons. First, I encourage you to steal it and use it with your students if you think it could work for you as well as it has for me. Second, I want to explain it as an exercise in stating some of the reasons I believe it has been so effective.  Continue reading

Advising for Vocation: Ten Touchstones

In March 2018, Hannah Schell discussed the great promise and deep challenges of incorporating vocational exploration into the fabric of academic advising. In this current post, I will pick up where she left off. Many of our NetVUE member institutions have seen the potential for vocational reflection in student advising that Schell discusses. Many, too, are exploring effective frameworks for sustaining programs which do this consistently and effectively. Lots of us are trying to figure out how to do this well. Here I want to address both the promises and the challenges of incorporating vocation into student advising by offering a list of touchstones. Continue reading

Vocation without the “V” word

What do we do when the word “vocation” itself is a problem? Vocation, NetVUE contends, is a powerful lens for undergraduate education. But what’s to be done when our students or our faculty/staff communities don’t much like the word?

For some institutions, an older history with the V-word with a much different meaning proves unhelpful as a platform for new programming. For others, it points to an approach for education which is entirely too theological for the climate of the campus. I work on a campus where care for the student journey of meaning, purpose, and well-being is extremely high. So much so, in fact, that “vocation” stands as one of our General Education Student Learning Outcomes. Our students look to faculty and staff for very holistic formation and we excel in providing it.

And yet, on our campus, if you openly use the word “vocation” or “calling” in a classroom, the conversation stumbles or stagnates. At times, in one-on-one conversations my students may be warm to the notion of a calling, but discussing that with peers in a class setting seems to violate some unspoken social taboo with students at Blackburn College. The V-word just does not fly here. So how do we educate through vocation without the V-word?    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.