• Amherst’s Mentoring Program Taps Into the Expertise of Alums

    Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
    August 6, 2014

    In 2013, Amherst College launched an online mentoring platform aimed at increasing engagement between Amherst College’s increasingly diversified student body and its well-connected alumni base. The Pathways program was the result of four years of development.

    Pathways is a collaboration between Amherst’s career center, Office of Alumni and Parent Programs, and information technology department. Its aim is to foster connections between the entire alumni base and student body.

    “What distinguishes this mentoring program from others like it is the program’s democratic nature,” explains Ursula Olender, Amherst’s associate dean of students and director of the career center. “Pathways makes the networking process less intimidating for all students, even those who are not adept at leveraging social networks or who don’t appreciate the importance of such connections.”

    At the center of Amherst’s mentoring program is a learning partnership where a mentor draws upon his or her knowledge, skill set, and perspective to provide guidance and feedback, while facilitating the personal growth and development of a less experienced mentee. The mentee takes an active role and responsibility for his or her learning and development, while the mentor facilitates that growth by asking thought-provoking questions that help students reflect on their experiences.

    “The intended outcome is that students will be able to make strategic and informed decisions regarding their academic and professional life,” Olender says.

    All alumni and students may participate in Pathways. The program has been promoted heavily at new student orientation, homecoming, and reunion.

    “We have developed an outreach campaign that includes e-mails, print mail, postcards, and advertisements in student and alumni publications,” Olender notes.

    In addition, Pathways has been featured on the college homepage, the student newspaper, and the alumni magazine.

    “Our initial outreach went out to all alumni,” she says. “We are now focusing on recruiting mentors in demographic groups and career fields where we have few volunteers.”

    Mentors and mentees have access to comprehensive downloadable handbooks on the Pathways website. These handbooks include a template mentor-mentee agreement, sample discussion questions, goal setting exercises, areas of concern for students, and campus resources. The career center also held a live webinar for alumni mentors that was recorded and can be accessed on its website. The webinar provided strategies for advising Millenials and gave concrete examples for how to approach specific challenges, such as how to help a student who is not sure what he or she wants to accomplish through mentoring or what careers interest him or her.

    There were various challenges the offices faced during development and implementation, including:

    • Developing a large and diverse group of willing mentors.
    • Building a platform that integrated with Amherst’s online alumni directory.
    • Coaching students and alumni on how to frame expectations and communications.
    • Preparing mentors with information on when to make referrals.
    • Stewarding alumni who were not selected as mentors.

    “We focused on building a system that empowered mentees and mentors to choose mentoring relationships that fit the developmental needs of the student,” Olender says. “In order to accommodate all students, we could not build a program that required an administrator to match and monitor mentors and mentees.”

    The program’s has proven effective. Amherst surveyed student and alumni participants during the first semester and has recently completed the second survey (results pending). By the time the program launched, 528 alumni and 288 students registered and completed profiles. During fall 2013, 142 students formed active mentoring relationships with 124 alumni.

    Mentees were almost evenly distributed by class year and by gender. In addition, 55 percent of Pathways mentees were students of color, while mentors represented classes graduating as far back as the 1950s, with the largest percentage—54.8 percent—graduating in the last 20 years.

    An evaluation of all participants was conducted in December with 70 percent of mentors and 48 percent of mentees responding. In general, both mentors (78 percent) and mentees (85 percent) reported satisfaction with the program and would recommend it to peers.

    “We were happy to hear that many mentoring teams were able to meet in person and that several students planned to continue their mentoring relationships this spring,” Olender says. “The results have helped us further consider how to communicate the benefits of the program.”

    This fall, the Pathways program will offer a webinar for alumni mentors and a workshop on campus for students featuring participants and our program's administrator who will share best practices and answer questions.

    “Amherst College is fully committed to this innovative mentoring program,” Olender says.