I’ve been writing for Higher Ed Live for some time now about student, alumni, and career engagement programs. Many times my conclusions spark the next series of questions and your comments help move the discussion forward. Your feedback is incredibly valuable, and so for this post I want to start by framing it with a question:

How did you meet the person you consider to be your mentor?

And now for the $50 follow up: Do you consider that person a friend?

For most people, the answer to the second question is a resounding, “Yes.” Your mentor could be a current or former boss. They could be a relative, neighbor, or the person you met through a civic club. No matter how you first met them, a mentor forms a close relationship with you over time and you come to consider them a professional ally and a friend.

This relationship dynamic is definitely true for me and one of my greatest mentors. Before I considered him to be my mentor, we worked together to put on a bluegrass music festival for the Rotary Club of Richmond. We were both committed to producing a great event and this project allowed us to form a relationship built on trust. As our relationship grew, he provided guidance over coffees and lunches, helped me land a great job amidst the depths of the recession, and went from being a professional connection to being a mentor.

There is a big difference between a professional connection and a mentor. Connections are people we can occasionally call on for information, or advice, or introductions. Connections are important, but they aren’t the first people you think of calling when you have a major problem or face a huge challenge. In these cases you reach out to a mentor, because a mentor cares about you on a deeper level like a friend.


Career services professionals in higher education often provide alumni mentor programs to undergraduates and young alumni. These are important efforts for strengthening a college or university network. Most alumni mentor programs are organized to create a singular connection between an alumnus and a student, and facilitate a series of interactions (some mediated and others not) and the rest is up to fate.

There is huge intrinsic value for the university to establish these network connections, but there is one real glaring flaw in these programs – the relationship that forms is not a mentor-mentee relationship. It’s a new 1st-level connection. You can relate this to connections on Linkedin (because I do!), in other words, the relationship is no more than an acquaintance.

A great mentor is a fierce advocate: he or she knows your core values, can vouch for your intentions, and is genuinely invested in your success. Great mentors have almost always worked with you in some capacity. That’s why great mentors are hard to find.

Connections are much easier to establish. Most people enjoy any number of positive connections with people they meet through work, or play, or social networks. Some people have hundreds if not thousands of LinkedIn connections; when the stars align, one of those connections might open a door.


Career service programs should explain the difference between a connection and a mentor relationship. Any program that involves people meeting for the first time should not use the word “mentor.” Doing so fails to frame the story properly. Unless the mentor and mentee will work together on a project, a potential mentor is really just a connection. (And there’s nothing wrong with that.) Without a project, the mentor has no idea how a mentee performs on the job and will be limited in their ability to provide career advice.

When we teach students and young alumni how to build connections, ask for informational interviews, or land jobs, those discussions should include coaching on how to form 1st-level connections. Training might include how to introduce themselves to alumni and 2nd-level connections on LinkedIn. The expectation should not be to turn a connection into a mentor. Instead, students and young alumni should be trained on the qualities to look for in order to identify a potential mentor and the steps they can take to form a lasting professional relationship.


Many alumni know what being a mentor truly means and involves, so asking an alumnus to mentor a student could be a dead end. The task could be perceived as a large time commitment or something more intimate than they are comfortable with. These alumni know that building a long-term relationship is a key part of establishing a healthy and beneficial mentor-mentee relationship, and are understandably hesitant to agree to serve as a mentor to a person they barely know, if at all.

As career services professionals it’s almost impossible for us to manufacture a mentor-mentee relationship. But we can teach students and alumni how to develop connections and build strong networks. Instead of alumni mentor programs, we need connection-building programs. These programs focus on building connections first and accurately describe the nature of the relationship sought. This focus will help students and recent graduates understand how to start small, ask for introductions, and build a stronger network. Years later, with time and effort, one or more those connections might turn out to be important career mentors.

Or they might not – and that’s okay. Good mentors are rare, because good mentors are also friends.


Article Author

Ryan Catherwood

Ryan Catherwood

Higher Ed Live blogger and Former Host of Advancement Live
Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services, Longwood University

Ryan Catherwood is the Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University. Prior to joining Longwood, he was the Director of Digital Strategy in the University Advancement office at the University of Virginia. His work is dedicated to strategies that utilize events, crowdsourcing, inbound and content marketing, email marketing and social media community management in order to drive alumni and student engagement, participation, connections, networking, volunteerism and giving at Longwood University.


Ryan Catherwood

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