More than just money
Alumni mentors give back to their alma mater by helping students with career advice, business contacts and yes, even jobs
Last year, when John Reid, a cable-TV company executive in St. John's, chose a university student to fill a work-term placement in his marketing department, he was able to base his selection on more than just a quick interview. He and Amy Warren, a third-year commerce student at Memorial University, had maintained a months-long dialogue under the auspices of the university's alumni-student mentorship program.
Although mentorships are intended to provide career advice rather than actual jobs, the more fortunate students in such programs may come away with both. As an unexpected benefit, Ms. Warren got the chance to work for Mr. Reid during last summer's semester, designing two Web-based newsletters and doing market research on competitors.
She and Mr. Reid began with an e-mail introduction, then met face-to-face at his suggestion. "I wanted to find out her goals and what she thought the next few years of her life would [be like]," he recalls. It was also a chance to give "my take" on what to expect in terms of jobs, salaries, employer expectations and different job cultures, he says.
Ms. Warren says the most valuable lesson she learned from her mentor is not to be "fooled into thinking it's all about who you know; what you know is equally important."
Ms. Warren appears to have made the right connections and also produced the results. "We got our money's worth from her," acknowledges Mr. Reid. But he believes that mentorship is valuable even if it doesn't lead to a hiring. "If the mentor is honest" with the student, he says, "it can be a wake-up call. We don't want anyone coming out of university with rose-colored glasses."
Memorial is one of a growing number of universities that offer students the chance to tap into the experience, knowledge and yes, hiring potential, of their alumni. Graduates who can't afford to make big gifts or want to do more than simply donate money to their alma mater are enthusiastically volunteering to mentor students who aspire to follow a similar career path. Some of the programs operate out of individual faculties, usually the professional schools, while others are campus-wide.
The shape of the mentoring programs varies. Some encourage frequent exchanges between graduate and student; others take a minimalist approach. The University of Winnipeg, for example, advertises its Career Connections program as "Just one meeting, anywhere, anytime." And while some programs thrive on face-to-face meetings, an increasing number rely on e-mail exchanges.
When the University of Victoria launched its e-mail mentoring program in 1998, says Don Jones, director of alumni affairs, "it was the first model where a student could read a profile of an alumnus and send off an e-mail without being screened first." UVic has since licensed the e-mail program to 11 other universities, including British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Windsor and Memorial. Some 1,200 mentors make themselves available to students across this electronic network.
One such mentor is Colleen Bell, a bachelor of music graduate who now works as the library instruction coordinator at the University of Oregon. When she was studying at UVic in the mid-'80s, she took a course from the music librarian who became her mentor. "I was attracted by the research aspect [of her career]," recalls Ms. Bell. She subsequently enrolled at the University of Western Ontario and earned a master's degree in library and information sciences.
In 2002, it was Ms. Bell's turn to serve as a role model. After posting her profile in UVic's online database of mentors, she heard from a student interested in library science. "She was looking for information on what the job is really like, the best way to get into grad school, and then how to get a job." The e-mail correspondence - about a dozen exchanges over the year - ended when the student enrolled in graduate school.
Ms. Bell sees it as a positive experience: "It's a really great way to give back to the university if you can't contribute financially."
While the e-mail type of program gives the participants only limited guidance on how to make the most of the interaction, the face-to-face programs can be much more elaborate. Université de Sherbrooke's faculty of administration, which began its program in 2002, has 39 alumni-student pairs who are expected to meet monthly. Senior executives from large, medium and small businesses and the public sector are matched with students according to their specialty: marketing, finance or human resources.
But before would-be mentors are confirmed, they have to answer a list of 20 questions that probe whether they have experiences and temperament suitable for mentoring. "I'm looking for winners, people who feel good in their skin," says Guy Lizotte, the program co-coordinator. "If someone's not happy, he can't be a mentor."
In September, the mentors attend a three-hour training session. They're provided with questions to ask the students to break the ice at the first meeting (for example, "What have been the major steps in your life and in your career?"), and they also receive a self-evaluation checklist to keep track of their own behaviour as the exchanges progress. ("I stay calm and keep control of my emotions; I don't change the subject without warning; I repeat and summarize certain of the student's comments to show that I'm listening carefully.")
Francine Pharand, a Montreal human resources consultant, and Karyne Meunier, a Sherbrooke MBA student, were one such pairing, albeit an atypical one, because Ms. Meunier, though a student, already has her own business as an educational psychologist providing adventure therapy - "adventure-based programs that integrate nature and experiential learning to help people of different ages and abilities overcome behavioural problems."
Ms. Pharand helped Ms. Meunier resolve a major career uncertainty: whether to continue operating exclusively in the social-service field or develop a similar program for the corporate sector. Ms. Meunier eventually decided to stay with the social sector, because its values are closer to her own. The decision reflected her mentor's emphasis on the need to follow a business strategy of "optimizing" rather than "maximizing" results.
Last year, the pair held six two-hour meetings in a Montreal suburb, near Ms. Pharand's clientele, as well as keeping regular contact by e-mail and telephone. Ms. Meunier is quick to phone her mentor when a crisis arises, such as a new competitor. But rather than spoon-feeding her advice, Ms. Pharand prefers to lead her to discover insights of her own. "Francine asks such good questions," says Ms. Meunier. Her mentor concedes, "As a headhunter, I know how to ask the right questions, but it wouldn't work if she were a less open, more rigid individual."
Although students who sign up for mentorship programs hope to acquire a competitive edge when they enter the workforce, most programs are actually designed to provide career advice rather than specific employment opportunities.
At Carleton University, however, the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs counts on its alumni to provide unpaid internships. This semester, about 80 students are spending one day a week in workplaces such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Canadian International Development Agency.
Leslie Levita, a 1994 alumna, did her internship at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and found it a mixed experience. "It was good to get a sense of what opportunities were out there in the public service," she says, but "it took more time away from my studies than it gave me back" in terms of increasing her knowledge or helping her make contacts.
Now working as a senior development officer at CIDA, Ms. Levita tried to do better by the two Paterson School students she recruited as interns: "I know the quality of the students at the school." She encourages them to seek out workshops, attend meetings and make contacts. "I don't just use them as cheap labour."
Karen Mollica, another Paterson School alumna, interned at Foreign Affairs in 2002 and, upon completing her master's, was hired on a full-time contract by the department. "One of the reasons I went to the school was because of the internship program," she says. "We see this as a way to get a foot in the door."
Slow to take off
Since mentorships can indeed help open career doors, one might expect students to be swarming these programs. Not so. At the University of Victoria, few students are sending e-mails to the alumni volunteers, says alumni affairs director Don Jones. Some volunteers "have complained that they wish they would hear more."
A survey conducted by UVic's alumni affairs department posited a range of explanations for the students' reticence. "Even though these mentor-people have obviously offered their services," wrote one survey respondent, "I still feel shy about asking complete strangers to take time from their busy schedules to offer me help." Others complained that they had not received replies from mentors whom they'd e-mailed for advice. Only 13 percent of survey respondents rated the program as useful, while 34 percent were not even aware it existed.
Meanwhile, McMaster University's nursing mentorship program has also faltered. It was launched in 1996 to match recent school of nursing graduates working in the Hamilton area with entry-level BScN students. For the second year in a row, however, the program is dormant.
Ann Downie, advancement officer in the faculty of health sciences, says that sign-up forms were not given to students at the beginning of term (as was done in past years); by the time the forms circulated, the students were apparently too busy with their studies to respond.
So the nursing alumni branch is revamping the program; it will switch to an e-mail-based format so that grads who work outside the Hamilton area can participate, assuming that the branch can spark student interest.
Leslie Johnstone, an alumna who coached three nursing students, says it might be better to offer a mentor to students in their third or fourth year. "First-year students are so overwhelmed that it's just one more thing to have to do."
Boosting student participation is also a priority for Wilfrid Laurier University. Its 20-year-old Alumni Sharing Knowledge program moved online this semester, and its administrators expect a thousand students will be participating within two years. Mentors are under firm instructions to respond to student e-mails within 48 hours. "We don't want students to feel they're asking questions and no one is there responding," says Jan Basso, director of cooperative education and career services.
At the University of Toronto's law faculty, the career development office moved the registration portion of its alumni-student mentor program online, to improve the matching process. Now students can enter a profile of the type of mentor they'd like to meet, including work history, working environment and professional and personal interests. "It's now a lot easier for us to make effective matches . . . more targeted to student needs and interests," says Lianne Krakauer, director of career development programs.
The key to student participation, and therefore program success, may be less the format than having both the alumni relations office and career services involved in running the program.
"It's difficult for an alumni relations office to program to students, but career services can," says Brian Breckles, director of alumni relations at Wilfrid Laurier. "The alumni relations office doesn't have the media to reach students on a regular basis, but career services has high student traffic, seeing as many as 400 students a day at peak volumes."
Mr. Jones of UVic agrees. "It's pretty hard for the alumni relations office to have a good window on students unless you work in partnership with others. Most of our participating students have heard of this [mentorship program] from the counseling service and from career services."
When promoted effectively, alumni-student mentoring can be a valuable source of insight for students. "It can give you 'been-there, done-that' wisdom," says McMaster alumna Ms. Johnstone.
"When you're a student, everyone's respectful of you. But when you're working, there are personality conflicts and on-the-job stresses. Nobody ever teaches you that in the classroom. By sharing your knowledge with students, you can help prevent them having such a bumpy road."