Having a mentor can make the difference between getting a good undergraduate education and a great one. Every student at UC Berkeley deserves an opportunity to be mentored as part of their undergraduate experience.
Mentoring is different from teaching and advising. One definition of a mentor is a “wise adviser.” At its best, what makes mentoring distinctive is its personalized nature and the crucial role that listening plays. Teachers don’t generally begin their courses by asking their students, “Who are you and what are you interested in learning?” An adviser is more likely to ask these questions but may not have personal experience in the path the student wishes to pursue. In a mentoring relationship, the mentor has knowledge, experience, perspectives and/or connections that will be valuable to their mentee and is prepared to share them, is committed to learning about the mentee’s goals and aspirations, and sees the mentoring role as supportive and empowering — though this may sometimes include speaking hard truths. The relationship is designed to benefit the mentee, though there may be benefits to the mentor as well. Interactions between the mentor and mentee are not generic or interchangeable but grounded in the individual character, interests and background of the mentee. The mentee is taking part in the relationship intentionally and is committed to getting something out of it.
What difference does mentoring make? Here at UC Berkeley, we’ve had a unique opportunity to study this question since the Berkeley Connect program launched in 2014. When students sign up for Berkeley Connect through one of 13 academic departments, they are matched with graduate students who serve as their personal mentors for the semester. Students can talk with their mentors about anything related to their academic life — goals they hope to achieve, resources they are seeking, challenges they’re facing, questions they’re afraid to ask their professors. Berkeley Connect participants meet individually with their mentors at least twice, with the option to meet more frequently and also interact with their mentors during biweekly small group meetings.
At the end of the semester, more than 90 percent of Berkeley Connect participants report that they have increased their awareness of resources available to them, deepened their knowledge of an academic discipline, increased their sense of belonging at UC Berkeley and increased their confidence that they can succeed here.
Institutional research data show that the positive impact of Berkeley Connect extends to academic performance. Berkeley Connect attracts a high percentage of transfer students (almost 50 percent) and underrepresented minority students (about 25 percent). Transfer students who enroll in Berkeley Connect, compared to those who do not, are significantly more likely (+6 percent) to achieve a high GPA (3.5-4.0) and significantly less likely (-6 percent) to have a lower GPA (2.0-2.9). Underrepresented minority students who enroll in Berkeley Connect in their first year, compared with those who don’t, also achieve a higher GPA and are half as likely to drop out in their third year.
A sense of belonging is not just “nice to have,” but crucial to a positive educational experience. The 2015 campus climate survey made clear that a significant percentage of underrepresented minority students, genderqueer/transgender students, students with disabilities and LGBQQO students experience exclusionary behavior during their time at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that concern about belonging is a chronic stressor that can undermine students’ motivation over time. Personalized mentoring is a proven method of increasing students’ sense of belonging. Mentoring in small groups also helps build peer relationships across differences, which can reduce exclusionary behavior and its negative impacts.
Why does mentoring make a difference? UC Berkeley is a huge institution. It can strike undergraduates as impersonal and overwhelming. Many students, particularly those vulnerable to impostor syndrome, may be tempted to keep their heads down and “survive” UC Berkeley without drawing any attention to themselves. But in order to unlock all the benefits of attending a world-class research university, it is essential for students to reach out and build personal relationships that will help them achieve their dreams — and that may even inspire them to set their sights higher than they previously thought possible.
Having a mentor not only provides students with the individualized attention, advice and encouragement they crave; it reveals the advantages of connection and community. Success does not happen in a vacuum. Students will “not just survive, but thrive” (to quote the chancellor) if they build supportive networks of mentors and peers. As a public university that attracts a high percentage of first-generation college students, UC Berkeley has a responsibility to lay the groundwork for these networks and set all students on the road to success — before and after graduation.
Campus leaders recognize the importance of mentoring. The new strategic plan cites Berkeley Connect as a model program and states that it should be available to more students. As implementation of the plan begins, let us work together toward a future in which every student at UC Berkeley experiences the benefits of mentoring during their first year on campus.
Michele Rabkin is the associate director of Berkeley Connect.