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Finding a Mentor: Tips and Tricks for Getting Started

January 31, 2018 Jordan Hughes

Within the field of Student Affairs, we constantly hear about the importance of locating a mentor - someone who can be your guru as you climb the student affairs ladder. Finding a mentor as a new professional in the Student Affairs field can be intimidating. How do you find a “good” mentor? Where do you even begin?

Before delving into tips and tricks, it is first helpful to define the term “mentor”. On the most basic level, a mentor is defined as a “trusted counselor or guide.” Within the field of student affairs, I interpret the term mentor to be “someone within the SA field who can provide you with advice, insight, and feedback related to your career and professional development.”

Caveat: I am still new to the SA field and am by no means an expert. However, I have been intentional about regularly networking with people at my institution since I was a graduate student. I have honestly been so pleasantly surprised by how willing people were to meet with me - even senior level VPSAs will make time for you if you ask far enough in advance! As such, I have received a good amount of advice from these colleagues on mentoring. Here are some tips I have acquired from these many coffee meetings.

Start with coffee – but with a purpose

If you are interested in getting to know someone as a potential mentor, asking them to grab coffee is always a good first step. When you make this initial ask, however, make sure to do so with a purpose – and with the convenience of the prospective mentor in mind. Ask them to propose a time that is convenient for them, and close to their office on campus. Send the calendar invite yourself. Come prepared with questions so that your time with them is well spent. And of course, be on time. You should always do some research on the person beforehand so you can ask them about their role on campus. If they are involved with NASPA, ask them about their role within the organization and any tips they have for getting involved. Just be prepared, and ready to engage in discussion with them!

Utilize the professional resources already available to you

The task of finding a mentor can seem daunting – but there may already be resources at your disposal that can point you in the right direction. If your institution has a staff association or a women’s association, these organizations may already have a mentoring program in place. At Northwestern University (my institution), our Association of Northwestern University Women (ANUW) has a mentoring program for staff. Programs like this can help you make that initial connection with a potential mentor.

NASPA also has a myriad of resources to help you connect with potential mentors in the field. At the 2017 Annual Conference in San Antonio, I was able to participate in the Candid Conversations program. Candid Conversations matches you with a more seasoned professional for the Annual Conference, who serves as your mentor throughout the event. I was able to meet with my mentor for coffee and lunch several times during the conference. As a first-time attendee, it was extremely helpful to connect with someone who had attended the conference many times before. In particular, my assigned mentor had great tips regarding which sessions to attend and how to make the most out of networking opportunities while at the event. I highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity and other opportunities coordinated by NASPA at their conferences.

Be intentional about selecting your mentor

I still remember one of the most important pieces of advice I received from a colleague when we were discussing how to choose the right mentor. She said, “Just because that person has the job you want one day, does not mean that person should be your mentor.” In short, if your goal is to be a VPSA, this does not mean your mentor has to be the VPSA. Be open to networking across various functional areas of your institution or student affairs unit. Many SAPros work cross-functionally at the university, and as such, can offer insight into multiple units. Furthermore, your mentor should be someone you get along with - someone that you feel comfortable around and someone that you will want to go to for advice. If your mentor intimidates you or the conversation does not flow naturally, they may not be the best fit for you.

Challenge yourself

Your mentor should be someone who will encourage you and build you up – but they also should be willing to give you some tough love when necessary! Be open to constructive criticism and feedback from your mentor, especially if you ask for their feedback. A good mentor will give you their honest opinion about a potential job switch or an issue you are having at work – even if it is not what you want to hear. As long as your mentor is invested in you and your success, you can know that their advice is coming from a good place.

So how do you begin? Well, the best thing you can do is just get started. Ask someone you admire out to coffee – the worst thing that they can do is say no, or that they are too busy at the moment - though I have found most people to be so open and friendly when discussing their careers!  Attend professional development events put on by your department or institution. Just get out there and meet people! While there is something to be said for seeking out a mentor strategically, it can happen organically as well. The most important thing is that you are out in the SA community, engaging with your colleagues. Good luck!

Jordan Hughes is the Program Manager for the Kellogg Board Fellows program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is passionate about fostering student learning in the civic engagement and social impact space. Connect with her on LinkedIn .