Preparing for Mentorship: Building a Successful Relationship

By Anika Lautenbach

The CEOAS Academic Mentoring Program (AMP), co-coordinated by Robert Allan and Erin Lieuallen, provides opportunities for undergraduate mentees to work with graduate mentors. Graduate students volunteer to mentor undergraduate students and provide support and guidance as they navigate topics like their area of study, graduate programs, and career planning.

Over the past couple years, Clare and I have facilitated a foundational training that prompts mentors to think about what they can do to support their mentee and have a successful relationship. This year, Robert and Erin wanted to provide space for mentees to prepare for mentorship as well. This was a great opportunity to think collaboratively with mentors and mentees about what it means to create an effective mentoring relationship.

We liked the idea of creating more intentionality around the mentorship process and helping others think about the type of mentoring relationship they wanted. Ultimately that became the common thread for in both training sessions: how can we support mentors and mentees in preparing for their work together so the approach to the mentorship relationship can be intentional and individualized?

Preparation for Mentors

When we first connected with Robert, he was interested in providing mentor training that would equip mentors with a “toolkit” of skills to use in their work with mentees. He observed that while “many understand the idea of mentoring and believe it is important…most have not had any formal training that provides a foundation of knowledge to guide their support.” In training mentors, our goal was to name and validate foundational skills they use in other contexts and build off those existing skills and knowledge. We also wanted to help mentors individualize their approach to the specific student and situation.

To prepare CEOAS mentors for their roles, Robert asked them to first complete Unit 1 of the Peer Educator Training. This unit provides the foundational elements for working with someone, including listening and being present, asking questions and prompting thinking, seeking clarification, validating others, and building self-awareness. We built on this foundation with additional training.

During the training, we asked mentors to consider their experiences being supported by another person and what worked about that relationship. This gave them a chance to hear from each other about the range of experiences and how relationships look different depending on the needs and strengths of people in that partnership. This was important for shifting thinking from a default position about mentorship toward a position of learning about their mentee and what will work for them. We also normalized taking time to build trust and encouraged mentors and mentees to have conversations about the mentoring relationship and their expectations.

While those talking points are fairly common in trainings that we have done with mentors, we don’t usually have the chance to talk with mentees as well.

Preparation for Mentees

This dual-training approach of working with mentors and mentees gave us an opportunity to synchronize expectations and communication practices. Erin described a key aspect of the training: “mentees benefited from having a clearer set of expectations for the program as well as the opportunity for guided or self-reflection of what they would like to gain from mentorship.”

In the session, we wanted to hear what “mentorship” meant to mentees and what they hoped to get out of their experience. Just as we had with mentors, we acknowledged that there was no “one-size-fits-all approach” to mentorship—establishing the expectation of mentors and mentees building the relationship together. Clare and I shared our experiences with mentorship, including the great support and tools mentorship can offer, as well as limitations of that support. Through this session, we helped mentees see that mentors are just one piece of their support network.

Toward the end of our session, we asked mentees to prepare for their first meeting, reflect on questions they had for mentors, and consider what to share about themselves. We were excited to see the range of topics within the Zoom chat. This mentee-focused session gave mentees their own set of tools for working with their mentor and sharing the type of support they were looking for in that relationship.

Looking Forward

It’s been a great opportunity working with CEOAS and thinking about the mentoring relationship. We’ve especially appreciated Robert and Erin’s focus on being intentional and building the conversational skills for successful mentoring. We’re looking forward to learning how these skill sessions impact the mentorship currently taking place in the AMP program.

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