The influential role of mentoring in higher education

Throughout different stages of our lives and careers we establish relationships with people that can become influential in our development as professionals but also in our growth and maturity as human beings. These kind of people that have such impact in our formation are often called mentors. The definition and characteristics that make someone “qualified” to perform the role of a mentor depends on the categories you have for them. Independently of your criteria, mentors will have a certain impact in your development.

Mentors serve as guiders and supporters. They are people we trust and often look up to. During the different years that I have been part of higher education I have had the privilege to meet a lot of people that have guided me to where I am today. My mentors are not only conformed of professors and advisors, but colleagues, classmates and fellow graduate students as well as early career scientists. My active involvement and engagement in research started during my freshman year of college. It has been through research that I have been  able to network and meet a lot of people who I have collaborated and directly work with.  However, not everyone that  I have worked with has served as a mentor to me. Although, I do recognize that even though they did not play the role of a mentor they were important in my formation.

Being mentored represents an opportunity to learn from someone else’s expertise, discuss different ideas, get advice on career paths and so much more. A mentor is not someone that will tell you everything you have to do, but someone that will provide some sense of direction. At the end the decision is still yours and you should feel ownership of what you want for your career and your professional and personal development.

Within higher education it is imperative that we have a broad community of mentors that represent different fields, perspectives, backgrounds and experiences. Diverse mentorship efforts or programs allow to promote equity and inclusion within the institution but also to hire and retain a more diverse professoriate, students and staff. During my different experiences with mentorship I have found that I feel more inspired and reassured that I am capable of pursuing a career in Academia because I have been mentored by people that look like me and with who I share similar backgrounds and interests. My decision to pursue a PhD was highly influenced by the different relationships I developed during my undergraduate and master’s. My understanding  and recognition of the lack of representation for minorities in my field also served as a motivation to position myself in a place where I can have an active mentoring role to continue breaking the barriers to make higher education a place that is accessible to a broader community.

How do we begin to incorporate changes in higher education?

In a world that is constantly changing, how instruction and education are imparted must coincide with those changes, it should be representative of the world we live in. Education serves as the major tool for academic formation, knowledge development and overall understanding of how things and the world function. In order to break barriers and enhance a global understanding, instruction in higher education needs to evolve. There are a variety of changes that could be made within higher education to improve its development, expand its reach and make it a place that is more appealing for a broader group of people.

Where do we start when thinking about implementing changes in higher education? An evaluation of how the institution works, overall performance of students, faculty and staff can be an initial step to determine what works and does not. It is very important to understand and acknowledge the weakness and strengths of a school, program, department, etc. Acknowledging this allows to have a clear understanding of the areas that need to be prioritize in order to be successful when transitioning to the changes that want to be incorporated.

As a person that has been participating in higher education for over 7 years in different states and territories of the Unites States of America (USA), I have identified things that I would like to improve or change within its structure and function. These observations became more evident once I started teaching in graduate school. One of the things I first noticed when I became a laboratory instructor for an introductory biology course was the lack of interest and engagement of students. Additionally, the expectations of the course were not aligned with the prior preparation of the student. This often resulted in taking additional time to go over material that was expected for the students to already know.  The students I taught were mainly freshman, which meant that certain skills for this introductory course were assumed to have been learned and developed during high school. I think the fact that students often struggle to engage in the class is due to the lack of confidence that can come from not having acquired certain skills yet (e.g. data analysis in Excel). 

A way to strengthen students skills prior to when major assignments are due can be through an early assessment of their standing. For the upcoming semesters the TA’s of the course prepared an ice-breaker activity that incorporated some data collection and analysis. This provided the perfect opportunity to review material or introduce data analysis to the students. As a way to continue the development of these skills, I opted for having a data analysis activity at the end of each class as a way to review steps, answer questions and overall maintain students active and constantly thinking about how to work with data. Keeping this material fresh in their brains proved to be highly beneficial for when students had to design their own research projects. 

The four semesters that I taught this course allowed me to identify what worked and did not for the students and myself. Having a guided tutorial during the first day of the class served as an explicit layout of the major expectations of the course and the opportunity for students to understand the importance of understanding data, how to analyzed and interpret it. As students understanding of data analysis software’s increased, their participated and engagement in the course also became more active. Students that were more advanced would help their classmates which all promoted for interaction and teamwork.

Implementing changes like this one in the classroom can be scaled to the institutional level. As higher education institution’s begin to work towards a more inclusive environment and becoming accessible to a broader group, things such as acknowledging the changes that need to be incorporated and developing a plan to work towards that goal can highly influence its accomplishment. Additionally, building a support network of a community that seeks to make change happen and its held accountable for the progress that is made can significantly impact the long-term effects of the new implemented changes. Lastly, a key thing to keep in mind is that in order for a change to work and evolve according to how the world changes is the need to revisit the plan and make sure that is still working and if not determine what modifications are necessary for it to work again.