3 Interactions With a Mentor Can Help a Student Graduate. Here’s How.

By Goldie Blumenstyk

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Following is a transcript of the conversation.

“College to most students is that experience. It’s stepping onto a campus, feeling like a stranger in a strange land. And there’s so much that can be accomplished in college when someone has the right relationships at the right time.” —Jackson Boyar

Goldie Blumenstyk: Welcome to Innovation That Matters, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast sponsored by HP. In this special series, we’ll be sharing the stories of change makers working to improve equity in higher education. Hello, I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, and that voice you just heard is Jackson Boyar, co-founder and CEO of Mentor Collective. Hey, Jackson, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jackson Boyar: Thanks for having me, Goldie.

Blumenstyk: So Jackson, in your company’s name, it’s got “mentor” right there, Mentor Collective. And I hear a lot about advising and coaching and mentoring. Can you give me a little sense of what the difference is between a mentor and a coach and a tutor?

Boyar: It’s a great question. And I think it’s one that, frankly, very few folks have a great grasp of. When we think about mentoring in our work, we start by thinking about all the different relationships, formal or otherwise, that a student encounters in their journey to higher education. So you have your advising. In many cases, that’s academic advising. In some cases, you have a coach. Some institutions might call that “intrusive advising.” But in all cases, that is a formal professional working at the institution. You have tutors, who tend to focus more on academics. And then in our case, you have mentors. And they are all very different, and I would argue that none replaces the other. They’re all important in forming a board of advisers, a board of community support for a student as they progress through higher education. And one thing I’ll say that’s very unique about mentoring that I appreciate is that it’s reciprocal. Where a coach or an adviser is hierarchical in many ways, peer mentoring in particular focuses on the reciprocity of a mentor and mentee co-learning and progressing through a relationship together.

Blumenstyk: So if I’m being mentored, I’m one of your Mentor Collective clients, I guess, what do I get? How does that work?

Boyar: So I’d frame this first from the perspective of an institution. Mentor Collective is effectively three pillars: It’s research, it’s services, and it’s technology. And what we’re fundamentally doing is taking this high-impact practice of mentoring that has been understood and lived within pockets of the institution for years, and we’re bringing it to scale with a higher degree of efficacy.

And so for a university or a community college, we’re helping scale peer-mentoring programs or career-focused alumni or employer-mentoring programs, all with the goal of improving student-graduation rates, job-placement rates, and social mobility, and the mission of higher education.

Blumenstyk: And so what does a mentee — are they generally required by their school to participate? Do they opt in?

Boyar: Yeah, that’s really a design decision that comes down to how the institution wants to partner with us. But we often recommend what we call an implied mandate, which is where the student is not required to participate, but they are strongly encouraged. And we’ve seen in cases where the university weaves the messaging of the program into their admissions process, into the orientation process, or even into the academic curriculum, we see higher rates of participation, sometimes 80 or 90 percent of first-year students opting into a program because it’s really a cultural investment on campus that allows all students to be part of this more-supportive community.

Blumenstyk: And is it usually students from their own campus who are their mentors, right? It’s not like a national group or something like that.

Boyar: Correct. In almost every case, the mentors are members of the community. And that’s important to us as well, because we want the mentors to reflect the lived experience of the students they’re supporting. So on a commuter campus, you would want a mentor who attended as a commuter student themself.

Blumenstyk: And are you finding that some of the students are not just traditional 18-year-olds, but older students also get mentored?

Boyar: Absolutely. And we have a lot of partners like Western Governors University or UNC-Greensboro, where we’re either specifically serving adult learners, or the student body looks like the new traditional student. So they’re 35, 40 years old.

And in our first partnership with those institutions, there was a question as to whether mentoring would resonate with that audience. But we’ve seen in practice that it maybe even resonates more so, because the students are looking for someone to talk to about life, not just classroom work, time management, going to school while raising a family, while pursuing a job — all these things that we know adult learners have to balance alongside their education.

Blumenstyk: So I know you’ve been at this for six or seven years now, and this has certainly been one unusual year for higher education. What did you see this year from the students being mentored? What did you hear from them about what their needs were?

Boyar: Yeah, I think this year was, of course, like no other. We heard from our government that everyone was meant to socially distance. And we know so much of the college experience is quite the opposite of that. It’s the relationships formed over the college journey that can make college work for more students. And so a technology-enabled tool and system that helps connect people with relationships I think was more important than ever.

And from students, we saw that mentors were serving as more than just a support figure. They were also serving as eyes and ears for the institution, identifying students who had additional needs, such as housing or food insecurity, or maybe even health and safety concerns related to the pandemic.

Blumenstyk: So they were almost like an early-alert system sort of?

Boyar: Exactly. I would call it a little bit more relational, less transactional. Over the course of a mentoring experience, you get to know that student and their needs. It could be that they share something going on in their home life that’s a real barrier to them enrolling the next year. And while we want mentors to retain some degree of privacy over those interactions, there’s also in some ways a mandate to the mentors to help the student be successful. And that might mean emergency financial aid from the institution.

We have these “insight flags,” is what we call them, when a mentor will report a need for their mentee and make a referral to the institution. And we saw a many-multiple increase in the incidence of depression, housing and food insecurity — all the things that you read about in the news. But in this case, the mentors were able to alert the institution to those needs so they could deploy their resources: counseling, financial aid, tutoring support. Academics were a focus, but it was mostly life. It was the things outside the classroom.

Blumenstyk: And you mentioned tech for a minute. So are the mentors mostly texting these students? Phoning them, God forbid? How are they doing it?

Boyar: You’d be surprised. Some of them do actually get on the phone, which we love to see. We’re very much platform agnostic. One of the design decisions we made early on was speaking to several hundred mentors about how they wanted to engage with students. And nobody said they wanted to download a new app, to be forced to interact in one way. Most of them said they’d be most comfortable texting. And so what we do is provide a relay line that allows mentors and mentees to text without sharing direct contact information. And if they want to, they can.

We wanted to remove as much friction as possible, including downloading a new app to go communicate with your mentor.

Blumenstyk: And a new password to go with that app, right? Oh, God, no.

Boyar: Yeah.

Blumenstyk: So you talk a little bit about the fact that this program isn’t just for the mentees, but it sort of has some benefits for the mentors, too. Who are they? What makes somebody become a mentor?

Boyar: There’s so many reasons, and we’ve actually built out different personas of mentors we see most commonly, like any good tech start-up would. What’s been really interesting is that it’s often the students who felt in some way disenfranchised or disillusioned with their college experience who want to give back the most. We capture that information as they volunteer to be mentors, but they’re often telling us they want to help the next generation have a different experience than the one they had themselves.

It’s not always students with the highest GPA. You will have your persona of “upper-division student who is in 17 different extracurricular activities” involved. But it’s not only those individuals. And we see one of our strengths as an organization of making the cultural investment in the institution of the altruism, the volunteerism of giving back. And we have institutions where 1,500 members of the junior and senior class with a graduate student body are volunteering to mentor on an annual basis. And we encourage them to do that through the messaging that we send out, also the training and credential building that we invest in for the mentors.

Blumenstyk: So tell me a little bit about the training. How do you prepare students to be a mentor?

Boyar: Yeah, and mentoring is a skill. If you are asking a chief HR officer in a Fortune 500 company, that might be one of the top five or 10 skills they were looking for in their recruitment process. So the first thing is just communicating that that is a codifiable skill set to build.

So starting with how mentor training typically works, because most institutions will have a mentoring program on campus, if not several already: It’s often what I call the “pizza party” approach. You bring 25 mentors into a classroom with a highly charismatic administrator, and you go through a day of training. That doesn’t work for commuter mentors; it doesn’t work for alumni mentors who might be regionally distributed.

So, as most institutions did during the pandemic, we built an online version of that training that’s actually going through an accreditation right now. But we use Zoom. We use webinars and breakout rooms and role play as a pedagogical tool to go through different scenarios that a mentor might encounter and build the skill and the muscle of having direct conversations, of building rapport with someone who might not have had the exact same experience you did during your time in college.

Blumenstyk: So what are the skills of being a mentor? Building rapport would be one. Do you have classes on empathy?

Boyar: Yeah, it’s the same sort of skill sets you’d see in a great manager. Active listening is something that we talk about most. So some people in a conversation already have what they want to say, and they’re not listening to what their counterpart is relaying to them. In a mentoring interaction, especially in the early conversations, your job as a mentor is to listen, and then build your mentoring plan from that point onward.

And so when you think about mentoring someone who might come from a different culture, who might be an international student, who might be in a different major, you will be matched with your mentee based on shared background and interests, but they won’t be you. And so you have to learn first before you give back as a mentor. And that’s just a mind-set that’s important to teach.

Blumenstyk: And do the mentors get paid?

Boyar: Some institutions will have the financial resources to pay their mentors, but about 95 percent of the mentors we work with — and that’s over 30,000 trained mentors to date — are volunteers. And we recognize that. To us it’s a commitment to the mentors to create an experience that they value just as much as the mentees. And a lot of what our software does, and what our research division does, is help us understand: What are the behavioral tools we can use to help volunteers have a great experience, but also deliver that impact to their mentee? And that’s the reciprocity I mentioned. You want the mentors to learn just as much as the mentees in these interactions.

Blumenstyk: And I guess at the end of the day, you’re also giving the mentors a set of skills that they could eventually use as they begin their careers off campus.

Boyar: Exactly right.

Blumenstyk: And on that note, let’s pause now and hear from our sponsor.

Mike Belcher: Hi, I’m Mike Belcher, HP’s director of ed-tech innovation, and thrilled to spend a couple of minutes with you here today — and so appreciate all the great work The Chronicle is doing, in particular on this topic of mentors and mentorship, etc. And, you know, personally, I would not be here today if I didn’t have the incredible luck to get connected with some really smart people who could help me think through my approach toward my career, ideas that I had. And I think this is so important for all of us.

I know some of my most important business memories have been where I’ve been able to help others as well, and I’ve been lucky enough to be part of American Corporate Partners for years, helping returning vets and getting them new lives, new careers, etc. So this to us is incredibly important. And at HP, it’s really important. I thought I might just share a few things with you that might be helpful as we kind of think through this topic and how we view it. And I think I’d be remiss to talk about mentorship and internship, etc., without talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And it’s a huge part of our company, and really I think a huge part of our company’s success. I’ve been thinking through this and knowing that, in the tech industry, we have a long way to go to get to an equitable sort of relationship between the folks that work inside of HP on a number of different levels. But we have intentional approaches on how we go about that and whether that’s having an incredibly diverse board — I think that’s a great place to start as we think about, you know, our boards of trustees. Are we doing the right thing there? Are we looking at women in tech in our own industry and people of color, doing those right things?

For us, we started really looking at doing some unique sort of approaches. Some of those have been around business challenges, whether that’s with creatives, with technical colleges, community colleges, or one of the longest-running challenges we have with the HBCUs. We’ll be in our fifth year of a business challenge where we get a chance to interact with a number of people across HP. I think we had 70 people from HP involved in the last business challenge with the historically black colleges and universities, their business schools, and it gave us a chance to interact. We ended up finding some great interns. We had a chance to actually make some great relationships with folks who might not be an intern, but were looking for career guidance, help, support, had questions.

So finding that opportunity we think is incredibly important, and particularly in our industry, we’re focused there. We do have some great programs at HP and some of those are very formal mentor-mentee sort of relationships with candidates that have opportunity for rapid advancement, etc., and that we think will lead, but we do a whole lot of work in coaching as well. Where do folks have expertise that we might want to share with others inside of our organization? How do we create that sort of environment where people feel comfortable in speaking with each other in that same way? And we’ve created business-impact networks where groups of folks can work with each other in this more group-type environment to help solve problems or to provide impact inside of their own communities and for themselves. So I applaud The Chronicle. This is such a great topic. If you want to learn more, I’ve got some great slides up here where you can go and learn more about how we approach this that might be helpful inside of your institution. Thanks so much for allowing me to speak with you all.

Blumenstyk: Thanks for that and welcome back. This is Goldie Blumenstyk, continuing the conversation with Jackson Boyar, the co-founder and CEO of Mentor Collective.

We talked a little bit about the kinds of experiences mentees — the first-year, second-year students — might have been experiencing. What was it like for your mentors this past year? Was it an unusual year for them as well?

Boyar: It was hard, and I wouldn’t want to sugarcoat it and say that it was an easy year to be a mentor. What was interesting is that with the start of the pandemic, we recruited more mentors than we ever thought possible. And we measure the effective volunteer rate when we reach out to a list of cold contacts from an institution. And we have good benchmarks of how many students will respond, how many alumni will respond and become a mentor and go through that training process. And those rates were higher than ever before, and I think it was because people wanted to give back, and they knew the challenges others were going through. But over the course of this last academic year, we saw real challenges for mentors. We do a series of standard assessments over the course of an academic year on things like self-efficacy, both for mentors and mentees, and we saw that actually decline for mentors over the course of the year.

We hypothesized that because the mentors were not on campus with mentees — because they were facing challenges themselves in going through online coursework when they were used to working in campus experience — that was just another strain on their goodwill and their volunteerism. We still had amazing engagement from the mentor network as a whole, but it really showed us the overall strain and burden that students are facing across the nation.

Blumenstyk: It sounds like this past year gave you some impetus for your whole program, sort of built up the operation a little bit. Where were you before the pandemic, and where are you now in terms of numbers of mentors you might have, number of campuses, and even maybe number of students served?

Boyar: Yeah, so a couple of metrics. At the start of the pandemic, we worked with about 50 institutions, and today that’s about 130, which is exciting momentum. At the beginning of the pandemic, we probably had served about 30,000 students, or created 30,000 relationships. Today, it’s about 125,000. So you see not only more institutions coming on board, but schools serving more students within their existing Mentor Collective partnership. And what’s been most exciting to me is that we’ve also made real headway in serving more minority-serving institutions. More than 50 percent of the students we work with attend MSIs. And we’ve also started making real headway with community colleges and HBCUs. So the profile student we’re serving is also increasingly diverse and in different contexts.

Blumenstyk: Do you train the mentors to sort of appreciate some of those differences?

Boyar: Absolutely, and to the extent we’re engaging alumni mentors, who may have graduated 10 years ago, there’s even more training required to contextualize the work. And we see so many of our partners going through real, powerful transformation in terms of their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, that the institution may look different than when an alum was on campus a decade ago. So those are all mechanisms we integrate into the training of mentors before they’re ever interacting with the student.

I think too often schools expect somebody who responds to an email to be ready to be mentored — mentored or to be a mentor. And there’s so much that has to go into making that relationship effective.

Blumenstyk: That raises a very important point. We’ve gone past the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, and we’ve seen a lot more awareness on campuses of the need to be racially sensitive and ethnically sensitive. Did it change your training over the past year? Did it sort of affect how your mentors operated?

Boyar: So there were several things that changed. But what was most pronounced for us was the response of the mentor-mentee network during the murder of George Floyd and this reckoning on racial justice. So the first thing we did was actually build out new curriculum that we shared with all of our mentors and mentees on having courageous conversations, because in many cases, a mentor or mentee, we’re not interacting with someone from the same race or socioeconomic background, and there were important conversations to be had within these mentoring relationships. So that was very much a call to action for our team at Mentor Collective and our institutions. But now, looking forward, this need for training on D, E, and I is just so critical and something many of our partners have asked for that we’re building additional modules of training for mentors that might be required or optional in certain program designs. So, if the program is being sponsored by the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, there might be additional training that mentors go through than something sponsored by student affairs more generally.

Blumenstyk: How do you know it works? What does your research show, not just on the value of mentoring, but on the value of your mentoring program and its design?

Boyar: Yeah, this is frankly why we built a research department, and we wouldn’t want to continue what we’re doing if it didn’t work. So there’s two forms of assessment. One would be summative assessment. So that’s looking at those lagging indicators like student retention and enrollment and sense of belonging. And we’ve conducted several meta-studies, as well as several randomized control trials that show about a 4-percent increase in student retention for those who go through these mentoring relationships.

That’s corroborated by a lot of the secondary research out in the literature. But then, in terms of formative assessment, we look at things like engagement, satisfaction scores between mentors and mentees. Those are the things that help us inform whether we’re on the right track. And one of the most recent things we found is that, in our programs, when a mentor and mentee engage three times, that mentee is very likely to graduate. And so we almost build backwards. In the same way Facebook built backwards from the number of friends you want to add on the network, we’re trying to build backwards from the amount of relationship capital that’s driven by the mentoring.

Blumenstyk: Wait, so you mean just three times they’ve had a conversation back and forth makes a difference?

Boyar: That’s our current working hypothesis. We’ve looked at several tens of thousands of mentoring relationships to come up with that hypothesis. But when we think about our product design, we’re working towards that level of engagement as the minimum.

Blumenstyk: And is that over a certain period of time? I was sort of imagining this as you’re texting back and forth with your mentor, like every few days during the school year. You make it sound like even just a few contacts could make a very big difference.

Boyar: It can, and every institution is running their program a little bit differently. But some of those relationships will be focused during stressors over the school year: midterms, early onboarding, even the summer before the freshman year or before a transfer of campus is a time when we see peaks in our mentor-mentee engagement data. So we haven’t gone through the work of isolating all the different factors leading to those three conversations. But this is sort of hot off the presses from our research department. It’s something we want to continue to work towards, and that’s why we’ve hired so many Ph.D.s onto our team.

Blumenstyk: You collect a lot of data across your campuses also. Are you able to feed some of that information back to the colleges in a way that’s useful, so that Institution A could learn from what the experiences were at Institution B?

Boyar: You are spot on, Goldie, that is the vision of the collective, and we have not done this perfectly to date, but we feel we’re now at a place where we can start to inform the practice of mentoring even beyond our partnerships. One of the things we’ve taken on over the last several months is building out cohorts of partners. And in particular, we’ve built out an HBCU cohort and a two-year institution cohort, recognizing that mentoring needs to look different on those campuses. So we’re just beginning to research that data for those campuses in earnest. But alongside them, we have 700 mentoring programs we’ve assessed over the years that we can begin to feed back into the partner network.

Blumenstyk: Is a 4-percent increase in retention a big enough number that a college is going to want to spend money on a mentoring program?

Boyar: Retention is an important metric for every provost and president. I would argue that what matters most is social mobility, which is a little bit harder to assess. But that 4 percent is students moving from their first to second year of enrollment, and when you think about the campus that might have 5,000 students moving through the freshman year, and the amount of tuition revenue that could be retained if those students stayed enrolled and moved into their junior and senior year and so on, it’s a pretty clear ROI equation. But those are just the ways that our partners justify the investment.

I think everyone is doing this because it’s the right thing to do, and because if you look at a typical campus, there are already 10 or 15 mentoring programs. There’s just no visibility into their efficacy. And there’s often one or two administrators managing a smaller cohort of mentorships. And we don’t want to displace that work. We want to amplify it.

Blumenstyk: What got you sort of interested in this? Were you mentored yourself as a college student?

Boyar: I’ve had a long, winding path into this work. My passion is related to the idea of building a comfort zone and being comfortable in an uncomfortable place. Like many tech CEOs, I’m fairly privileged. I’m a white man who generally receives the majority of venture capital.

But it’s over the course of working in higher education that I’ve become increasingly passionate about fulfilling the promise of higher education. In my education, I was very privileged to live abroad and became more integrated into a foreign culture as a result of the relationship surrounding me. And living abroad and building a comfort zone abroad helped me recognize the importance of feeling comfortable in uncomfortable situations. And college, to most students, is that experience. It’s stepping onto a campus, feeling like a stranger in a strange land. And there’s so much that can be accomplished in college when someone has the right relationships at the right time. And some of our first mentees and mentors were international, and they encountered the culture shock that is acclimating to American higher education.

I would argue that the culture shock of being low-income is just as great attending an American university or community college. My goal with building mentoring programs is to help more people feel like they belong.

Blumenstyk: How do you think that’s going to go? I mean, are people buying it? Do people see the value in it? Or do you think Covid’s going to go away, and we’re just going to suddenly — everyone’s going to want to get back to normal, and they’re not going to want to invest in this kind of support for students?

Boyar: I think there’s an opportunity to build mentoring into the college experience so that it’s inextricable. In the same way your Chemistry 101 textbook is or has been inextricable from the college experience, I want mentoring to be viewed as almost the expectation that if a student is deciding on an institution, they’ll ask, Will you have a trained mentor who reflects my background and my experience support me through this journey? And as they become the young alumni, instead of giving back financially, they’ll desire to give back to someone who looked like them and had a similar experience.

I think mentoring is just such an innately human thing that gives you so much joy, if done well. It’s not always done well, and that’s the challenge we’re trying to solve. But people want it. And there’s ego in it, too, Goldie. It feels good to be a mentor. It shows you what you know. It’s the same reason students tutor other students. It builds your ego up, it builds your confidence. And I think that’s part of the equation, too.

Blumenstyk: Hey, Jackson, thanks so much for joining us today. This has been a really interesting conversation.

Boyar: Thanks so much for having me, Goldie.

Blumenstyk: This has been Innovation That Matters, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast sponsored by HP. For additional episodes, look for us on the Chronicle website or your favorite podcast app. I’m Goldie Blumenstyk.

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