I was in Australia a few weeks ago for CASE Asia-Pacific. While there, I gave a workshop on alumni relations and career services collaboration. Towards the end of the session, I was asked for my opinion on mentor programs. I took a deep breath and shared my sentiments. I argued we should rethink mentor programs. There was silence.

Lots of universities are working to develop formal mentor/mentee structures. Here’s why we might not be conveying the right narrative with these programs.

They don’t teach young job seekers how to think about the hiring process from a hiring manager’s point of view.

If our job is to teach people how to get hired, then mentor/mentee programs send the wrong message. Students and alumni must learn how to develop relationships to build a network that will provide referrals. Hiring managers rely on referrals to make decisions on candidates they’ve only met a few times for an hour or two. If nearly 80% of jobs are obtained through referrals, that must be our program’s focus.

The best advice for a mentee would be to go out and introduce themselves to people, starting with alumni in places they’d like to live and work. We don’t need to deploy resources towards formal structures to deliver that narrative. We need to teach students how to introduce themselves to the right people.

Over the long run mentor/mentee programs do not benefit the growth of our university networks.

Instead, what we should try are building environments where introductions occur organically. And, where advice-seeking students meet helpful alumni. At Longwood University we’ve utilized the Graduway platform where alumni can volunteer to help students and other network members. Most alumni have indicated on their profile a willingness to help provide advice to students that reach out. In career services appointments, we teach students how to use Linkedin and Graduway to find alumni whose shoes they hope to fill, so to speak, and how to reach out to them for an informational interview. We’re trying to create the right environments, not a new program.

In real life, we don’t “swipe left” to find our mentors

Take a minute to think about the popular dating app Tinder or others like it. To find a date, the app allows users to select or drop people with a quick finger swipe. New platforms help schools build mentor programs designed around introductions that essentially function like this. Swipe left to pick a mentor. This might work for date seekers interested in a first impression, but mentorship happens over time. Mentors are our friends first. They can vouch for our integrity as professionals, because they aren’t artificially engineered acquaintances.

It’s true. I want students to worry about referrals, not mentors. That’s because I want them to get hired! That said, I understand why so many colleges and universities are trying to make them happen. We want to help students bridge the gap between college and career and meaningful connections with alumni are important. But in attempting to do so with mentor programs we’re failing to teach them how the world really works.


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

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *