The Art of Mentoring

What Do I Do and Where Do I Go From Here? Mentoring at an Open-Door Institution

Will Benedicks, January 2012

This essay focuses particularly on the mentoring problems and opportunities inherent in two-year, open-door institutions, where the diversity, economic concerns, preponderance of first generation students, nontraditional students, and students requiring academic support courses blur the lines between mentoring, advising, and counseling.

In some ways, mentoring starts with good teaching. We serve as good examples and role models. Generally speaking, the nature of the community college student means much of your time is spent explaining general education requirements, major and minor options, the transfer process, and institutional choices. As we get to know our students through the interaction of the classroom we become mentors to some. Unfortunately, while such mentoring is a critical step in the educational future of our students, few faculty are trained to, or are ready to, facilitate the process.

While there is no formal training, there is a process in place—we learn to mentor by good and bad examples in your academic career and life, by life's experiences—both good and bad. Mentoring at the community college is as diverse as the student population, which is often differentiated by such factors as age, gender, culture, race, ability, and disability and national origins. During mentoring you hope to impart guidance, options, and feedback and while there are some common elements in all mentoring, it is by necessity tailored to the individual student. We mentor for our discipline students interested in majoring in history. We also mentor for general life—life coaching if you will—because for many of these students this is the first adult-to-adult relationship they have ever had.

Two-year, open-door institutions, especially those in proximity of large research universities, provide an opportunity to mentor adjuncts as they transition from the rigors of graduate school to the role of an adjunct professor in a community college. Experience illustrates that this is an onerous task and another area in which they, the graduate students, usually receive no preparation. Few have ever stood in front of a class characterized by the diversity of an open-door classroom in terms of students' academic ability or preparation, age, culture, and race.

My mentor relationship with an adjunct professor is quite different from that of a professor in a large university. It is peer based and touches on every aspect of faculty life. We discuss what they are looking for as professors. We talk about the reality of the job market, the various academic institutions, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and where they think they might be best suited. We discuss institutional service, committee work, publications, workload, and growth potential. For many, who are focused on getting their degree, this is the first time they have discussed their postdoctoral future.

To help them relate better to their classrooms, I ask them to reflect on the differences between an upper-division class and a survey-level class when they write their lecture notes. I also suggest we meet to discuss the results of their first exam as usually these are quite eye opening for someone new to the open-door classroom.

The bottom line is this: mentoring at the community college is based on assisting students and adjunct instructors to establish sound obtainable academic and life goals, to listen to them, to understand and appreciate the value of education and professional development to their lives. In essence, you help students and adjuncts establish the template for their academic career somewhere else. They go, and oftentimes keep in touch, but by the time you get to know them, they are gone. 

Will Benedicks is a professor of history and chair at Tallahassee Community College. He is a past president of the Florida Association of Colleges and the Florida Conference of Historians. His work with the American Historical Association includes participation in the Preparing Future Faculty initiative, the Nancy L. Roelker Mentorship Award committee, and chairing the Raymond J. Cunningham Prize committee for an undergraduate history paper printed in a department journal.