In ninth-grade algebra class at my Minnesota high school, I started losing faith in math. I sat there incredulously, watching equations with letters bounce across the page. While my academic rigor began to fade, so did my reputation; the year before, I got into a fight at school.
Now, as an ardent advocate for the transformative power of education, I look back at that time and realize how much it had to do with how alone I felt. I had not yet built any meaningful connections with my teachers or peers at that point. Things changed when I joined the debate team.
No, it wasn’t my idea. I was strong-armed by my Indian immigrant parents, who had sacrificed to enroll in college so they could build better lives for themselves and their children. I initially refused, but they wore me down, and I’m glad they did. It was a transformational moment for me.
Debate provided me with my first mentor, Ms. Sarff. Like my parents, Ms. Sarff strongly believed in hard work and the value of education. She also believed deeply in me and guided me through high school and the college admissions process, which was new to my family. When others assumed I didn’t care about school, Ms. Sarff realized that I simply didn’t know what to do. Ms. Sarff’s mentorship carried me through college and into a career, and I’m lucky to have had her.
The current mentorship gap
Unfortunately, my story is a rarity. Too few young people report having a mentor in either high school or college. A Gallup-Strada poll found that fewer than half of college graduates said they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. Additionally, nearly half of college sophomores, juniors, and seniors could not identify someone who was not a friend or family member who gave them advice on navigating school and life after graduation.
Mentorship opportunities too often remain out of reach for students from historically underserved backgrounds. The Strada-Gallup survey found that 72% of white students said they had a professor as a mentor in college, compared to only 47% of students from racially underrepresented backgrounds. First-generation students are less likely than students with college-educated parents to have faculty mentors. In contrast, students attending private high schools or private colleges are most likely to have mentors.
Research has found that a faculty mentor who encourages a student’s goals and dreams is the single most crucial factor for personal and professional success. Studies from Harvard economic researcher Raj Chetty have found that cross-class connections—where students from under-resourced communities interact regularly with those living in higher-income areas—are powerful drivers of economic mobility that can lift young people out of poverty.
New ways to connect students
To close these gaps and provide more opportunities, colleges and universities should ensure their students have access to formal mentorship programs. Fortunately, it’s never been easier for institutions to find ways of connecting their students with high-quality mentors from a wide array of backgrounds and experiences. Virtual mentoring services have solved many logistical challenges that previously inhibited students from reaching their mentors.
Mentors come in many forms. Some postsecondary institutions are turning to their students and alumni to fill the mentorship gap. Learners benefit significantly from working with near-peer mentorship programs, which pair learners with recent college graduates who can provide guidance and coaching. Research shows that learners with access to near-peer mentors are likelier to value and persist through academic difficulty.
Meanwhile, a growing number of nonprofit organizations are working to provide mentorship to students from underrepresented backgrounds. The Teach Chicago Tomorrow program, for example, serves graduates of Chicago’s public high schools enrolled in City Colleges of Chicago to pursue a teaching degree. These aspiring educators are paired with current Chicago Public Schools teachers, who help them learn about careers in the classroom.
When connecting students and mentors, colleges should also consider pairing people from different backgrounds. As Chetty’s research suggests, cross-class relationships can result in students receiving fresh and unexpected perspectives from mentors with different lived experiences.
It’s difficult to say where I’d be today without the many mentors I’ve had throughout my academic and professional journey. In many ways, the trajectory of my adult life was set in motion simply due to a chance decision: I signed up for the debate team instead of marching band or theater. But we cannot leave our students’ futures up to chance.
Every student should have access to a great mentor, as I did with Ms. Sarff, who sets them on a course to a rewarding life and career.