We’ve all been instructed to “find a mentor” in our student affairs career. But what does that involve? How do we do that? Is getting a mentor even a good idea?
I’ve had a mentor for my entire student affairs career. His help has been invaluable. I highly suggest anyone in the field find, and regularly keep in touch with a mentor, for their own professional growth. But that often leads to the next question:
How do I get a student affairs mentor?
Why choose a mentor?
There are many personal reasons to find and keep your own mentor. Though that is not often the reason why this question comes up in student affairs. When I speak with other people in the field about their own their own development, they often cite the following top three reasons to find and connect with a mentor.
1. Choosing a mentor for professional growth. A mentor is someone who is invested and interested in your development as an upcoming student affairs professional. They can share their experiences, successes, and hard earned lessons.
2. Choosing a mentor for network growth. When you first start your career in student affairs you may only know your colleagues, coworkers, and classmates. Your contacts outside of your professional circle may be limited. Having a mentor with an expansive network can connect you to people you would not have met.
3. Choosing a mentor to build your professional capacity. You become a more valuable student affairs professional when you gain competency in different areas as well as develop your own capacity to excel in new ones. Your mentor can help you develop this capacity through their own experience and direction.
Finding a mentor
Professional growth, network growth, and capacity building are all good reasons to have a mentor. But how do you take the steps to actually find one? The answer to that lies in a few different areas.
A mentor / mentee connection relies on developing a relationship between you and your mentor. This means that this is will not be a fast or immediate process. Rather, over time and through many meetings, you develop your connection to one another through which their help will become readily apparent.
While most believe that your mentor needs to be a senior student affairs professional or a vice president, they don’t have to be. Mentors don’t have to be ahead of you in your career. They could be lateral professionals who perform the same job as you but at a different institution, for a different population, or with a different outcome.
You can find individuals who would make great mentor through different outlets. But the tip that I’ve recommended most frequently to student affairs professionals is to review who is currently in their network. That means determining who you can see yourself developing a long term relationship with from your undergraduate program or graduate school.
This means you can also look at your own institution for other professionals who would be a good fit for you. Outside of that you can also check out social media like LinkedIn; professional organizations like NASPA or ACPA; or annual professional conferences.
Determine who you would find most useful to connect with when reviewing these new contacts. Start with those who you admire; those who you look up to. But more specifically you should be able to positively answer the question: is this person someone you can relate to?
Once you find this person, learn as much as you can about their background, education, professional, and even personal interests. Does this sound like someone who would be a good fit for you? Do you see yourself connecting with this person on a regular basis?
You may discover several professionals in your search that would make a good fit. That’s great! Begin compiling a list of these people as you’ll engage with them to determine if they will be a good fit, and are willing, to mentor you.
Engaging with a mentor
Now it’s time to meet and engage with your list of potential new mentors. You can do this over an informal meeting if this person is close. Otherwise, you can schedule a time to speak over the phone or via video.
This a great time to conduct an informational interview to learn as much as you can about their professional paths, background, experiences, and more.
Often the best way to reach out to your potential new mentors is through email. The best way to start is to contact them through their institutional email address. Otherwise, other good methods are to contact them through LinkedIn or Twitter. Having a mutual colleague connect you two is also a great move.
However, you must also be realistic about the amount of time it’ll take your new contact to get back to you. Student affairs professionals already have full calendars and busy personal lives. So give them time to respond. I suggest new professionals reach out to them two weeks after their initial contact if they haven’t heard from them yet.
How to choose a mentor
Choosing a mentor will largely be based on your own personal and professional goals. But, one of the best ways to determine if this relationship is going to work long term for you is to relate to common backgrounds, experiences, or aspirations you two may share. Doing so makes both of you relatable professionals rather than just two strangers meeting for the first time.
Though commonalities are comforting, remember to also take time to challenge yourself. It’s important that you find someone who you can connect with but this new person should still challenge you. They should able to question your assumptions in order to help you grow. I’ve best heard this described as “It’s like you’re trying to read the label from inside the bottle. You need someone on the outside to read it for you.”
Your mentor is the person on the outside who can read the label on your bottle.
Defining your mentor / mentee relationship
Lastly, you should take time to define your expectations and boundaries of your new mentor / mentee relationship. Specifically, how often and what method you’ll use to keep in touch. Doing so will help both of you setup a structure for accountability and connection going forward.
There are many reasons to choose a mentor for your student affairs career. That includes professional development, network development, and professional capacity. While finding a mentor may be difficult, it doesn’t have to be.
Start with your own personal network and work your way out from there. Then contact your list of potential new mentors. This will help you determine if any of them fit what you’re looking for.
Once you’ve chosen your mentor, take some time to sit down and determine how often you’ll be in touch with one another. Setting expectations early on is the key to mentorship success. In the end, don’t forget to return the favor and give back by serving as mentor yourself.
If you’re looking for a mentor to help in your student affairs job search, you can start by reading the free eBook Getting Started in your Student Affairs Job Search available here.
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