APS Bridge Program

Mentoring for Retention

Mentoring is one of the most effective retention strategies. Effective mentoring can contribute to a student’s resilience and desire to work through challenges. Effective mentoring can curtail academic and personal challenges and also allows for early intervention if these kinds of challenges arise. There are a variety of mentoring models that can be employed. The ideal model to be implemented in your program will strongly depend on human resources available at your institution and the preferences of your students. Below we describe a few mentoring models and the roles that various people can play in mentoring students, but first we have a few general tips that are important for mentors.

General Tips

Mentoring Models

There are a variety of mentoring models that have been employed to support student retentions. Below we discuss the wrap-around mentoring model—also known as the constellation mentoring model, the multi-layered mentoring model, and the intrusive mentoring approach.

Leveraging Peer Mentors

Do not underestimate the effectiveness and importance of peer mentors. In many cases, peer mentors are often the first ones to be aware of challenges, allowing for early intervention. Having potentially navigated some of these challenges themselves, peer mentors have been instrumental in helping students to handle challenging situations. Having bridge students who have successfully completed their first year mentor incoming bridge students has been extremely helpful and mutually beneficial to both groups of students. To help foster peer mentoring relationships, graduate students may want to pick up incoming students from the airport, provide tours of the campus during induction activities, take students on grocery store runs prior to the semester starting, arrange social gatherings, or develop student-only seminars (See Integration into the Community).

How to make effective mentor matches

Bridge sites have implemented numerous models for this as well. In some places, students are assigned faculty mentors based on their research interest. This is often the case with the multi-layered mentoring model. Some peer mentor arrangements are made based on assumed affinity due to similar geographic, ethnic/racial, gender, or other backgrounds. Reviews regarding this have been mixed. What has been shown to be effective is allowing mentor matches to happen organically. Bridge sites create multiple opportunities for all of the faculty and students to join together during mixers or receptions throughout the first semester (and during the prior summer when possible). Then during the middle or at the end of the first semester mentor assignments are based on relationships that have formed naturally. Even when this model is employed, it is imperative that someone meet with students regularly in the first semester. The weekly or bi-weekly meetings during the first semester have been proven to be critical to student success and early intervention when needed. Thus, even if your program allows for more formal mentoring relationships to develop organically, someone should be responsible for regular check-ins with students in the beginning.

Making the Most out of Mentoring Meetings

In the first semester, it is important that mentors meet with students frequently. We suggest weekly or bi-weekly meetings. During these meetings, you want to assess their academic progress, their understanding of departmental expectations, and their well-being.

Keep in mind that affective issues impact academic progress. It is important that mentors keep an eye on students’ overall well-being as well as academic performance. If departmental rules are not written, they should be verbalized. Be sure students are aware of commonly held expectations regarding attending classes, participating in department seminars, email response time, etc. Practices at their undergraduate institutions may have differed in ways that you might find surprising; it is best to be clear and explicit regarding expectations within your department.

Mentoring meetings should be a time to offer open and honest feedback if students are not meeting expectations. It is important to provide clear explanations on why/how expectations are not being met and to be encouraging regarding steps students can take to meet expectations in the future. It is also important to be explicit regarding their integration into the department and if you notice areas of concern in this regard. These may be difficult, yet important discussions to have if students are to be successful in the department. If students are meeting expectations, state this with explanations as to why as well. Even if students are having difficulties in some areas, it is important for them to also hear what they are doing well. These makes constructive feedback more palatable and also provides positive reinforcement for the their successes. Mentoring meetings are important for both validation when students are progressing well and correction when they are not.

Mentoring is not only for problem solving

Mentoring should not be limited to supporting students that are at-risk. Mentoring is also important for students who are progressing favorably. Meetings with these students should include commendation and specific feedback on what they are doing well. Additionally, these students should be given direction on how they can continue to grow and progress as scientists. Be careful not to neglect students who are progressing favorably. It may be the case that at-risk students require more time and attention, but this should not be at the expense of those who are currently doing well. Without feedback and regular check-ins, students who are progressing well may lose motivation, unnecessarily worry about their progress, and encounter a “hidden” challenge without needed support.

Culturally responsive mentoring

There is a lot of research that exists on the topic of culturally responsive mentoring. In short, the gist is that instructors should be compelled to learn about the cultures and experiences of their students since this impacts their students’ learning environment and the ways in which they learn. It is not necessary for the social identities of the mentor to exactly match the social identities of their mentees. Moreover, shared social identities do not guarantee that someone will be an effective mentor for a student. What seems to be important is a demonstrated interest in and understanding of a student’s values, concerns, communication styles, and cultural norms.

It is also important to understand the significance of things that might impact your students differently than you. Examples of things that might impact your students include acts of racially-motivated violence, terrorist attacks, and political changes. These can impact your students directly or indirectly both emotionally and physically. The first step to being responsive to these things is being aware. The second step would be letting students know that you are available to listen, if they would like to share their feelings.

This may also be a beneficial learning experience to you as a faculty member. Hearing a student’s feelings in regard to these things may provide valuable insights into the experiences of people from different identity groups. One way to encourage this is to make statements either verbally or through signage regarding issues that impact students or that are important to (or impact) you personally. This can also be reinforced by attending campus events focused on social justice issues that you are also interested in as well. These are often sponsored by student affairs and faculty are encouraged to attend. At the very least, you may want to do a check-in with all students after a national event that might impact student’s well-being or emotional state.

Do not be discouraged

We end this section with these few words of advice: do not be discouraged. We have seen instances, when mentoring relationships started off rocky, but have ended well. Mentoring relationships do evolve. There are instances where students have kept important information regarding their progress from their mentors, which was no fault to the mentor. These things happen. It may take time for some students to build trust. People have different levels of comfort and multiple reasons why they may not feel comfortable sharing challenges they are facing. We encourage all programs to implement a mentoring plan because by and large, they are a major tool for aiding in student retention.