Can a mentor influence a young person’s sense of purpose in life?

Lund, T., Liang, B., Konowitz, L., White, A., & DeSilva Mousseau, A. (2019). Quality over quantity?: Mentoring relationships and purpose development among college students. Psychology in the Schools, 56(9), 1472-1481.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • There is increasing evidence that there’s a link between life purpose and positive outcomes for adolescents and young adults
  • Supportive relationships are crucial in finding life’s purpose
  • College is an important time for individuals to find purpose
  • This study analyzes if mentoring relationships correlate with college students’ life purpose
  • The sample consisted of 194 people, from three different American schools
  • Quality (relational health) & quantity (number of mentors, for instance) were implemented into the study as indicators of purpose
  • Findings indicate that college students who have, at least, one mentor had higher levels of purpose than students who have no mentors
  • Results also revealed that college students who have, at least, one mentor correlated with a greater commitment to life purpose than for students who have no mentors

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

A growing number of studies have demonstrated that purpose in life is associated with positive outcomes among adolescents and young adults. The college years represent an important period of both personal and professional growth, including purpose in life. Supportive relationships may play a critical role in the identification and pursuit of purpose. Relationships with mentors, for example, have been linked with purpose among adolescents. The present study examined whether mentoring relationships were linked with purpose among college students (N = 194) from three institutions across the United States. Both aspects of quality (relational health) and quantity (i.e., number of mentors) were examined as predictors of purpose. Students who had at least one mentor reported higher levels of purpose compared to students with no mentors. Among students with at least one mentor, quality of mentoring was significantly associated with a greater commitment to purpose, while the number of mentors was not associated with commitment to purpose. Results are discussed in the context of practical applications regarding student success and purpose formation in higher education settings.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Our results showed that students who did not have a mentor reported significantly lower levels of commitment to purpose compared to students who had at least one mentor. However, in regression models that examined associations between commitment to purpose and number of mentors and quality of mentoring (as measured by the RHI of the mentoring relationship), quality of relational health was significantly associated with higher levels of commitment to purpose. On the contrary, the number of mentors was not associated with commitment to purpose.

Consistent with previous research, our results indicated that high‐quality relationships with mentors are linked with purpose among adolescents and young adults (Liang et al., 2008, 2010). The relational aspects of high‐quality mentoring relationships—authenticity, engagement, empowerment/zest—may be especially important in purpose formation as youth seek to understand their place in the world and how they can leverage their skills and gifts to contribute to the world beyond the self. Despite evidence from the present study and existing research on the benefits of mentoring quality, more research should examine the benefits of mentoring constellations among college students (Higgins & Thomas, 2001; Lambert et al., 2018). In particular, future work should examine how multiple mentors may confer benefits to college students, particularly with regard to purpose formation.

Though our results suggest that quality matters more than quantity, our findings also note the importance of having at least one mentor. Higher education institutions should both encourage and provide students with opportunities to develop relationships with mentors. In our study, we were unable to determine whether the mentoring relationships reported by students were informal (i.e., naturally occurring) or were formal (an arranged mentor–mentee relationship; Crisp & Cruz, 2009; McKinsey, 2016). Unpacking how the quality of the mentoring relationship and subsequent purpose formation varies as a function of arranged and “naturally occurring” mentoring relationships would add to the literature and provide important insight to institutions of higher learning, as “natural” mentoring by professors has been shown to be especially beneficial (McKinsey, 2016).


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