How does mentorship in college foster success?

| 42 minutes | Media Contact: University Communications


What makes a good college mentor, and how does having one set you on the path to success?

Guest:  James Span Jr., executive director of Student Inclusion and Diversity at Central Michigan University.


In this podcast episode, host Adam Sparkes and James Span Jr., executive director of Student Inclusion and Diversity at Central Michigan University, discuss the importance of mentorship in college and how it can lead to success. James shares his personal experience of being mentored and explains that mentorship happens organically through relationships. James emphasizes that being a mentor is important to him because he wants to pay forward the support and guidance he received from his own mentors. He also discusses the role of mentors in college and how they can help students navigate the challenges and transitions of university life. James highlights the value of mentors who share similar identities and experiences with their mentees, but also acknowledges the pressure and responsibility that comes with it. He mentions various mentorship programs and initiatives at Central Michigan University that students can opt into, such as the IMPACT program, gender-specific initiatives, and the Mentor Collective. James also emphasizes the need for faculty and staff to prioritize mentorship and build relationships with students, as it can have a significant impact on their success and overall experience at the university.




James: I don't know that anyone ever walks around with a T-shirt that says, "I want to be your mentor. Please let me be your mentor." I think it happens organically. I think it happens through relationship and it just kind of evolves into something much greater and far greater. It goes from you're someone that I know to someone that I trust, to someone that I seek for support and answers to questions. And so there's this evolution of the relationship.

Adam: What makes a good college mentor, and how does having one set you on a path for success? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and today I'm chatting with James Span, Jr. executive director of Student Inclusion and Diversity at Central Michigan University. Hey, James.

James: Hey.

Adam: You ever been somebody's mentor? Several. Me too. Let's talk about that. Sure, let's do it. Let's unpack it a little bit. I want to start it in reverse a tiny bit.

James: Okay.

What is your personal experience with mentors?

Adam: Why is being a mentor important to you? Why do you value that status for yourself?

James: For me, it's rooted in the reality that I am who I am because of mentors, and this is my real tangible way of telling them thank you. By doing it for someone else, knowing who I am, my life's journey, professional, personal, spiritual, emotional, you name it, and the individuals who have played a pivotal role in me achieving some level of success, this is my way of saying thank you, and now I'm going to pay it forward and do the same for someone else. Plus I just come from a long line of helpers. I have family members on all sides of my family who were law enforcement, military and medical profession, educators and a ministry, you name it. And so it's just organically a part of my desire intrinsically to want to help others. And mentorship is a ready-made way to be able to do that in a very intentional way, in a very specific way depending on who that mentee needs of and from me as their mentor. And so for me, a big high five and a big thank you to everyone who's helped me to get to this point in life, I turned around and returned the favor.

Adam: When you were a college student, who was that mentor for you? Do, do you remember them doing for you? What was your aha moment and did you even realize that you had a mentor?

James: I did not realize it. And the reason I say I did not realize is because he was so good at it. It was my resident assistant for my first year of college, only lived on campus for one year, but even all these years later, currently today, this individual is still in my life, still serves as a point of contact and a resource. They reach out to me. If I reach out to them, they respond. And so just the organic nature of how the relationship developed, starting from a simple, "Hi, who are you? What's your name?" And then evolved into, "what do you want to be when you grow up? Why did you choose to come to this college? Oh, tell me more about yourself." And them actually holding on that information and then getting to know me, my journey, and pointing out when I may have needed some level of assistance.

Hey, you may not want to go over there and do that. Okay. And because I trusted him at that point, I listened to the advice, and so it was a real aha moment many years later in just hearing the word mentor to me, it was just like, that's my big brother, that's my resident assistant. But then just realizing the difference between a peer relationship and a mentor/mentee relationship, I was like, no. He was much more than just my peer, much more than a big brother. The intentionality, the focus, the problem-solving, the advice, everything, you name it, nothing was off the table. And still to this day, nothing is off the table. The conversations that I've had with this individual are conversations I have not had with family members because he's such a trusted individual and just for his own reason, he continues to serve as a mentor.

Again, resident assistant. I lived on campus one year. That relationship should have been severed when I packed up and moved out of the hall. He didn't allow it to and I wouldn't allow it to be that way as well. So yeah, that was an aha moment. But no, did not look at it through the sense of, you're my mentor, you are my resident assistant, you're my big brother. But then many years later I realized, no, this is different. This does not fit the normal as someone I know, when I was able to catalog and categorize how he offered assistance in my life, when I remember having a conversation with him very specifically about continuing my education on to pursue my doctorate, he asked very specific questions. If he asked 10 questions, I might've only had an answer to two of them, and that's why he said, "and you're not ready." And because of who he was, I said, you know what? Maybe I'm not ready now. I'm in the program now, so I'm ready now. But again, when I circled back around, I had a conversation with him again. He asked 10 questions. I gave him 15 answers. There you. And so now he's like, "you're ready." The intentionality and just covering so many different areas of my existence and my life, getting to know me and being that point of contact and resource took it to another level of, and just being a peer.

Adam: Yeah, I think that there's a lot of blurred lines in mentorship too. Thinking about having this conversation with you today, I thought about who might be a mentor in my life, and I started to identify people that I hadn't identified before, and I said, oh, man, I won't name anybody. I haven't talked to 'em about this. There's somebody that I had at college who was an administrator when I was in college, who a couple times a year, we don't speak a ton, but still reaches out to me, and I'm like, it's been 20-some odd years since we've had any sort of professional or academic entanglements. And I'm like, whether it's intentional or not, those people are out there. They're out there doing that, and they exist and they're putting this kind of influence. They're shading our decisions one way or another by being present and asking how things are going or how stuff is or showing up on this particular person too.

I remember I hadn't seen him in years when my father passed away, drove himself out and showed up at my dad's viewing, and I was like, whoa, wow. You know what I mean? This is just one of those people that I kind of go, that's somebody who they're placing that value on being of service to other people. They're not asking, what can Adam do for me? What can James do for me? I wonder what I can do for them right now because thinking about 'em, they're on my mind. And I think sometimes that's the start of somebody who can be a really effective mentor and they might be mentoring us and we don't even know it. Don't even know it. Yeah, we don't even know that it's happening. 

What are the benefits of having a mentor in college?

Adam: And with that said, why do you need these mentors? If I'm a student, let's take it from that perspective, whether we knew we were getting it or not. Why did you or I need that person at that time? What value were they likely adding to the situation for us?

James: When I think about the transition into the college setting, our students know schooling because that's what they've done for the majority of their life. They know reading, writing, and arithmetic. They're really good at that to some degree, but they don't know everything that college has waiting for them. And so incoming students, first-year students, having a mentor, someone who's a little bit further down the road, who has sat in the seats that you have yet to sit in, can offer that insight to be able to say, "don't sign up for an 8:00 a.m. class. It's not like high school. It's not the same thing. You're not going to be in class every day all day. You're going to need to study differently. You're going to need to write differently. You're going to need to read differently." So having someone who has that wisdom and is willing to share that with you for no other reason than just to be benevolent and philanthropic and wanting to be of some service to you being successful is tremendously valued.

Because again, I know reading, writing and arithmetic, but I don't know, living away from home, I don't know, living in a residence hall, I don't know joining a club and organization on a collegiate level, I don't know how to navigate the social setting. I don't know how to make new friends. Now I've grown up in my hometown or even moved around, but people knew me. Now I'm coming to a place where I might know one person. How do I navigate this space with 10-15,000 students around me? Having a mentor can help with that. And so when I think about college students, invaluable resource, someone who has their finger on the pulse, someone who understands that life because they've been there more recently than faculty and staff, someone who can understand the trappings, the distractions, someone who's made a few mistakes and can offer insight to say, you don't want to do that because I did and this is what happened to me and I'm still paying for it and still trying to get my GPA back up because of this. That insight and that information, invaluable.

Adam: Finding that person who's going to help you with that can I think be a little bit intimidating, can be difficult if you don't know that you need mentorship. It seems like a weird thing to ask for, but whether it's a peer or whether it is a faculty member or an administrator because maybe the mentorship that you're seeking is more on the academic side or the professional side. Correct. Tell me how you feel about this. I would posit you got to ask, and I think that's probably the hardest thing. And you don't necessarily come up to somebody and go, I want you to be my mentor, James. It's more you're seeking that advice. And I would say you're trying to feel out whether it works or not. Just because somebody has the knowledge doesn't mean that the two of you having an exchange is necessarily going to be a value to you. And that could be intimidating or hard to figure out.

James: Yeah. Ironically, I have had students come up and say, I want you to be my mentor. And at different stages of my professional career, early on I was just so flattered and I was like, "okay, I'll be whatever you need me to be." Now a little more gray hair, a little more wisdom, a little few more candles on the birthday cake. I ask very intentional questions. "What does mentorship look like to you? What type of mentors are you looking for?" Because I do agree with you, I could be a professional mentor, I can be a personal mentor. I'm an ordained minister, so I can be a spiritual mentor. I can be a lot of different things for you, what is it that you are really seeking and why is it that you're seeking it from me? Because I know in the professional capacities that I serve in, if you're looking for professional mentorship, unless you're wanting to go and be a higher education administrator, I may not be the best suited for you.

But if you're looking for someone to say, understand what it means to be a man and a black man and other identities that I hold, then I might be that person for you. And so I've learned how to turn it back on the student and say, what is it you're looking for? What is it that you're hoping to accomplish? Because it could be me or it could be someone else that could be a better resource than point of contact for you. And so I've found in being very intentional in approaching it that way does not come across as off-putting for the student to say, well, fine, I regret even asking you. It helps to spur the thought process for them to say, well, mentor is a different word for different people, and maybe I need to answer that question to see what am I really looking for of and from you, and then I can determine if you really are the person that I should be seeking it from.

And so I've learned to be very intentional, not flattered by it anymore. It used to be like, oh my gosh, you would think so highly of me that you would want me to. Those days are long gone now my time is not what it used to be. I'm much more involved in administration now, so I don't literally have the availability. So I have to be more intentional about is it me that you really need and how much time are you looking for? And do I have the availability and the capacity to be what you need? And so I ask very intentional questions.

How can you be intentional in a mentoring relationship?

Adam: When you're having a relationship with, let's just use the context of CMU, the student here, how do you know that it's clicking? How do you know that it's working for both of you? Clicking for both of us?

James: Yeah. I appreciate the way you framed it that way because I know how I would categorize it clicking for me. But when I factor in the mentee into the equation, I think for me, again, bringing up the word intentionality. If there is advice that's being sought of and from me, and then I'm offering that advice, and then I see that that advice is taken into consideration and it's having a positive influence on their decision-making to me, then I know that's clicking. But if I say, "let's think strategically through this, let's be very deliberative and I think maybe you should go right?" And then they come back and they tell me, "guess what? I went left." And I'm like, "well, how'd that work for you?" And they're like, "well, it didn't work as well." And I'm like, so it's not maybe clicking as much.

And so then I would have to change some of the strategies that I utilize and be more informative, maybe even be more transparent to let them know, be like, yep, there was a time when someone offered advice to me and I didn't listen and I had to suffer the consequences. But now that put the value in my life to say when someone says, maybe you should consider this, I actually consider it. And so the clicking comes across when I do see the growth and the development, when I see the intentionality in them seeking me out. I don't set up a schedule, if you will, with a mentee to say, we must meet every Monday at 3:00 PM but if I only see them once a semester and I'm continually reaching out to them through email, through text message, through whatever other means I have access to and I'm not getting anything, then I begin to question whether or not that is true mentor-mentee relationship.

And so then I try to reel them in as much as I can, but then I have to also accept the fact that I guess everyone has a shelf life. If they're over me, they're over me. And then that in a sense frees me up to go and be something for someone who may have a higher or even a deeper need. And so I don't beat myself up about it and say, oh my gosh, I lost one. I look at it and I just say, I played a role in getting them to where they needed to be, and so I'll chalk it up as a success and I'm here if they need me, ever need me again. But I guess right now they're kind of over me. I started working at the university back in 2005 as a residence hall director and my commitment...I relocated here from Atlanta, Georgia, born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

So, getting further and further away from the south, further away from my family, I remember having very intentional conversations with my students and the residents in the residence hall, letting them know, I am a long way away from family, so you better use me. Use everything that I have to offer you. Do not just limit me and say, you're only my hall director because I can be so much more. Don't only come to me when you have roommate conflict or you've lost your key and you need a new key or the heat in your room is not working or whatever. Don't put the limits on me like that. And when I became more demonstrative about that, students began to realize it. And then when students began to tap into me as a resource and they saw that I was that viable resource, that's when they started saying, "well, okay, well why am I putting limits on what this relationship can be?"

And so for me, expanding that boundary, helping students to realize I can be whatever you need me to be if you need it. And if you just tap in, just tap into the resource. We're here. I'm here by choice. I just had a conversation with a colleague not too long ago and they were saying, "you're from Florida. Why are you here in Michigan?" And of course I have an answer. And so I offered answer and they were like, wow, that's amazing. But it's usually the migration from Michigan to Florida and not Florida from here. And so there's definitely a head scratchy moment. And so when I discussed and shared my desire to help and be a point of contact and a resource and to be what others have been for me for future generations, that ended the conversation. But just being that point of contact and letting students know I can help you.

I just might be able to help you. I might surprise you. I always love it when students will preface the question by, you may not know the answer to this question, but I'm going to ask anyway. I'm like, I've been at the university all these years. If I don't know the answer to that question, I'm not doing something right. And I would say nine and a half times out of 10, I know the answer. And even for that 0.5, I know where to point them to get the answer. We have to be very careful in that we're not just saying what we think is the case. It's like, no, I need to speak very matter-of-factly. And even if I don't know, I'm going to tell you, I don't know. Funny story had a student that I interacted with many years ago that took issue with me saying, "I don't know."

And they were like, "well, why don't you know?" "Because I don't. It's okay for me not to know." "No, it's not okay." "It's okay because I will never know everything." Now granted, you and I can discover the answer together. We can explore together, but for you to hold me to a standard that you're not even holding yourself to, that's not fair to me and that's not realistic, and I want to help you to understand that now so that you don't go through the rest of your life and the next time someone else says, I don't know, you just lose it. There are going to be things that we don't know because I'm not the person that will just make up an answer just to get you out of my face. I'm man, if you will, to say, oh, I don't know. I don't know, but I can find out for you.

But it was just so interesting that because, and I don't know what their value system was and what led them to take such issue with me using those three simple words, but I helped them through an educational moment to realize that's not doing something wrong here. I'm not being bad right here. This isn't something that I'm going to go report you to the university. No, this is reality. This is transparency, this is honesty. I'm being ethical in my announcement to you right now, but I'm also exploring with you instead of period, get out of my face. It's like, no, let's find that together. So yeah, saying I don't know is okay, and being open and honest and transparent in mentorship is okay as well.

How do you become a mentor?

Adam: How do you become a mentor? So, if you are somebody who's been mentored your whole life, how do you become it? When's the transition point? When should somebody realize that maybe they should be handing out advice? I mean, you don't have to get gray in the beard like us to do it necessarily. You could be a 19-year-old mentor to someone else. I agree. We have those right here.

James: Sure, we do. I think for me it starts with capacity and it starts with a willingness to serve in that role. Again, for me, mentorship is different than I'm your friend, I'm your peer, I'm your associate. To me, the level of intentionality that's associated with mentorship also comes with a certain level of success that has been achieved. I have some life experience, some lived experience. I've made some mistakes and I've learned from those mistakes, and now I can transfer that knowledge to the mentee in this example. You have 19-year-olds who've lived in some cases, maybe more life than I've lived, and they can reach an individual far greater than I could. I understand, and I own my limitations. I know what I know, but I don't know everything and I haven't lived everything. And I just because I've been on Earth longer than you, doesn't mean that I've experienced everything that you have in your shorter amount of time on Earth.

I don't know that anyone ever walks around with a T-shirt that says, I want to be your mentor. Please let me be your mentor. I think it happens organically. I think it happens through relationship, and it just kind of evolves into something much greater and far greater than wow. It goes from you're someone that I know to someone that I trust, to someone that I seek for support and answers to questions. And so there's this evolution of the relationship, if you will, that can happen over time. It can happen almost in a sense instantly, like he said, it just kind of click at times. But I think there is also a role for the mentee. The mentee can help to usher someone into that role. Because they understand there's something that I can get from you. There's something about you that's drawing me to you, and I want to be connected to you because of what I see and what I hear and what I believe.

And now "would you be my mentor?" And it's like, I never thought about being a mentor. I didn't know anyone would look at me. And so I think it goes both ways. The individual making the decision that I've reached a point in life that I want to turn around and be a benefit to someone coming behind me and be able someone who has not shared the space that I have and live the life that I have, but then also that mentee someone that's looking, someone that's longing, can help to propel someone into that role. I know I've found it in both ways. I've found individuals that I've reached out to very intentionally because of what I've seen. I've done my research up close hand from afar, and then other instances, again organically it turns into maybe I should talk to them about this. And then when I breached the conversation and I realized what I'm receiving in return, it's like my hunch was right. And then I helped to usher them into the role. And now the dynamic of the relationship has changed for the better for both of us involved because again, mentor mentee, not different than brother to brother, friend to friend, peer to peer.

What's the value and pressure of mentorship for individuals with shared identities?

Adam: Some folks, based on their identity, will seek out different mentors. So, people of color tend to seek mentorship for other people of color. Women tend to seek mentorship from other women. If you are somebody who shares one of those identities, do you feel like there's a little bit of added pressure or added value for folks to give that unique perspective to somebody else who might be going down a similar path?

James: I think both. I think there's both value and pressure. The value obviously is the ability to directly identify, but then that pressure puts it on to say, okay, now because I have these shared identities, I now know what's waiting you or awaiting you rather on the other side. And so now as putting pressure on me to give you that much more advice, to be much more succinct, to be able to be that much more intricately and intimately involved in your journey. And so that pressure, whether it's external or internal, whatever the case may be, I think it's a real reality. But the value, I think about the mentorship opportunities and being at the university as long as I have, I attended an all-male college, and so I've always been surrounded by males. I'm a member of several fraternal organizations and just the boys club and just boys, boys, boys, me and my boys.

And so, coming to Central Michigan University, co-ed institution, and it's like, whoa, okay, I now have to learn how to share space. Female, represented genders. And I'm like, I have learn this. And so I had to find myself in the learning curve to be able to say, can I be as effective as a mentor to someone who does not identify as me racially or gender, gender identity, gender expression, whatever the case may be? Because of how I view mentorship, I've done the work to be able to not put limits on myself. And if a student comes up and says, I want you to be my mentor, my response is, "I'm sorry, we don't share the same identities. I cannot be your mentor." I never wanted those words to be able to come out of my mouth. So, I did the work to put in the work to say I have to become familiar because again, I believe that same value is there, but I also believe that pressure looks really different because there is not that shared identity.

There's still pressure because I have to be sensitive to the fact of I don't view the world through the lens with which you do, and so I have to put value on that. But then there's a certain amount of pressure because I'm giving you my perspective through my lens and which it's not the same as yours, but there's still some value there. And there might be a few nuggets in there that you can take and say, well, that makes sense, but that's not really applicable, so we'll just leave it at that. I may be able to take 50% of what you're saying and hold onto it and apply it to my life. But yeah, pressure and value, I think they're both there. But no, I do think that it is more times than not the natural inclination to reach out to someone. When I think about the work that I do at the university and working specifically with students of color and other unrepresented populations, there is that pension to say, "I need to connect with someone that looks like me."

I need to connect with someone who identifies as I do whatever those identities may be, and even intersectionality that's involved. And we have to be sensitive to that. Now, fortunately, that's not the limitations that are in place because there are students who have nothing in common with me other than the fact that we're at Central Michigan University that will reach out to me and say, there's something about you. Like you said, that moment something clicked, something, I said something, they heard something, they saw something they didn't see, something I didn't say made them say, "whoa, who is that?" Literally. And literally those were the words the student shared with me that they shared with someone else. They saw me and were in the office and moving around and visiting other people, had no idea who I was. Talked to one of my staff members and said, "who is that?"

And they was like, "that's Mr. James Span Jr." And she was like, "well, who is he?" Now? I can't get this person away from me. They connected with me. And it just feels such a very valuable role in their life. It's a young student of color, but it's a female student. And it's like, okay, here we go again, different dynamic, but because of that need: person of color, we can connect, gender limitations. But I can give you my best advice. And it's funny now because she calls me her work dad, and she's like, these are the kind of conversations I feel I should have with my dad, I heard it was the first time for me, I've been Uncle James for a long time, and now that was the first time someone's like, you're like my work dad. I'm like, okay, pressure. Okay, I'm up for the game though.

And it's been a wonderful relationship and just being a mentor and actually just gave her some information about she wants to go to law school. And so, I put her in contact with students that know that graduated from Central that went on law school. So again, professional mentor, personal mentor, we pray together. I'm a spiritual mentor, mean. So again, blurred lines in that respect. And again, it's something that she propelled me into the role. I didn't know the student. I didn't walk into them and say, "Hey, can I be your mentor?" No, they said, who is that person? And now all of a sudden, in a very short amount of time.

Adam: So, it's like being prepared to mentor everybody, but also understanding that some of these identities that we hold that are obvious, right? And they might not just be race and gender. I mean, welcome to America. It's the two things that we look at and go, oh, race and gender. Those might have value to why someone is looking for mentorship, but it might be something that's spiritual or professional or academic too.

But it goes back to the idea that making sure that the environment is inclusive, and again, by inclusive means I'm meeting you where you're at with what your needs are. And that might be that to some degree you just identify with me because you look at me and go, we're the same on this social level. We're the same on this cultural level, and that's at least a toe in for me, and that might lead into a mentorship or not. We've covered that you and I like being mentors. We like having mentors, and we like our mentees, most of them. And both of us get called dad at work. Thanks, Kyle. I get called pops by these guys. Yeah. Everyone who's in their twenties in this office calls me pops. It's endearing. Anyhow, thank you. It's because they respect me so much. 

What mentorship programs exist at Central Michigan University?

Adam: But outside of us, if you're looking for a mentor and it hasn't happened for you just organically, you haven't found it in office hours yet, what are some of the things that we have here at CMU? What are the programs that exist that can maybe hopefully help you find that connection?

James: Yeah, yeah. There is a rich appetite for mentorship at Central Michigan University. We have a plethora of student organizations and even mentoring initiatives that are in place that can help students as they enter into the university and even throughout their time and their matriculation here at the university. I think about the IMPACT program that really centers around community and placing incoming students into family teams with mentors who upperclassmen at the university who've done well academically, socially, you name it. And that then becomes their direct point of contact and resource along the way. There are other gender and specific culturally specific rather initiatives that are in place, Men About Change, Women's Initiative of Strength and Hope. There's a campus-wide initiative Mentor Collective where incoming students transfer or first year incoming students have the opportunity to sign up to receive a mentor. Again, to help them with their transition into the university.

Most of the competitive scholarships at the university have a mentoring component. So, if you are a person that's a part of the CMU Honors Program, you're a MAC Scholar, you're a LAS Leader Advancement Scholar, you are going to be assigned a mentor, someone who's an upperclassman in that same program, in that competitive scholarship that's going to be there with you and your point of contact and resource to be able to bring insight into what to expect in that journey, in that respective category. I think if we have a variety of different athletic-based mentorship programs, I know many years ago I was a part of an initiative, being from Florida, there were three young men who were on the football team that were from Broward County, and one was actually from Dade County in the Miami area. And once the coach found that out that I was from the region of the United States as they were, he reached out and he said, "I need you to connect with these young men."

You've made the transition from down south to up here. You've been at the University a while. I need you to help them out. Have those real conversations with them about what to expect after that first snowfall, what to expect when it starts getting cold, what it feels like. And not thinking that the winter jacket that worked in Florida is going to work in Michigan. It might not even work in the Fall time in Michigan. And so there are a variety of different formalized mentorship opportunities that individuals have the opportunity to opt into. That to me is the only concern that I have. You have to opt into it. So we don't have the intentionality in place right now where I as a mentor am seeking you out. It has to be, I'm a mentee, I'm a student, and I recognize that there is a need and I need a mentor, so let me go and align myself with one of these, one or more of these initiatives.

So the opt-in aspect, I'm not sure how to navigate that just yet and what that looks like. Because even with Mentor Collective, although we make it available for every incoming student, we only get a portion of the students that sign up and say, sure, I'll take a mentor. Now, granted…

Adam: You wish it was everyone you want it to be every incoming student.

James: Everyone at this university, every student at this university in my opinion, should have multiple mentors at the base level, a peer mentor, and then a faculty or a staff member for sure. I would even say and staff, because the reality of it is, again, our students navigate a variety of different spaces on this campus. I often tell the MAC Scholars that I work with that they will inhabit spaces on this campus that I never will. And so, I have to imbue as much into them as a mentor because once they go into that space, they're basically representing our office, they're representing me. I'll never be in that space. I'm not going to join the IM club volleyball team. Never on my best day would I be able to get out there and do what they do.

Adam: Bump set spike, James.

James: No, I love watching it. I cheer 'em on. I'll get a sign with their name on it and get the fat head with their face on it. But no, I'm not getting on the court. I'm not putting pads on my knees and those days are long gone. But because they're going to inhabit those spaces that I won't, the cyclical nature of it, I give to you, now you give to them. And so having that peer-to-peer mentor, very valuable. Having the staff member, very valuable. In the classroom dynamic, very valuable. And so every student at the university, if you can check those three boxes, you're doing something well, one or two, you're still in good shape. But for me, I think three for three will put you in an ideal situation because each one can serve a very different role. That staff mentor can make sure that you have access to all the resources you need on campus. You have questions about your matriculation. I'm your person, that faculty member speaking specifically in that discipline, they're going to have insight that staff member may not. That peer mentor, they're going to have aspect on the social success and other academic success components. So going three for three, that's going to help that student to be very successful here at the university.

What is the role of mentorship in academic and student affairs?

Adam: But in the higher ed space, could there be more, could there be more of a consideration for that faculty member who's stretched thin on the research, who's teaching three classes this semester to make sure that there's some way that they're being encouraged and incentivized to make time for that mentorship?

James: I think faculty are in a better position than I would say. Well, I would say academic affairs side of the institution is in a better position than even student affairs. With academic affairs, you basically have the three areas that faculty focus on their research, their teaching, but they also have the opportunity for service within that service can be mentorship, not only just service to the industry and the discipline and what they're focusing on, but also service to human beings and individuals. There's value placed on that. For some reason, there seems to be a lack of understanding and awareness in the reality that student affairs, we actually are doing real work. There's this thought of what you're calling mentorship. Is it really just relationship-building? Are you really just, and I always use the running joke. People just think all we do is sit around in a circle and eat pizza and make s'mores and sing Kumbaya.

Adam: You guys just have coffee six hours there.

James: That's it.

Adam: You're just shaking.

James: That's all we're doing. And the reality of it is, is there's a science behind what we do. There are metrics for success. There are key performance indicators. I mean, there's a lot that we do that we put into the work that we do. We're very intentional and deliberate in that process. But I think faculty, you expect that I'm in a classroom, I'm going to interact with students that can bleed over very organically into mentorship for some reason in the student life cycle and the student affairs side of the institution. Programming, absolutely, but not at the expense of the relationship aspect, not at the expense of the mentorship aspect. I love that we offer campus-wide initiative, however, large or small, absolutely love it. But the reality of it is there are relationships that I engender with students who might only come to a program because it's a program that I'm sponsoring.

If I wasn't connected to that program, they might not show up or they'll never go to the program, but they always stop by my office. And so I think there's the opportunity for the institution to place higher value across the board on building these relationships, but also resisting the urge to place a desired outcome. I think just allowing it to naturally gravitate and become what it's going to be instead of, I want you to build this relationship for this desired outcome. Because the reality of it is that's when it feels like forced interaction. I'm only connecting with this student because I have to focus on retention. I'm only focusing with the student because of...I'm focusing on the student because that's what I care to do. Because that's what I've chosen to do because that's why I'm in student affairs. I made a very deliberate choice to remain in student affairs.

What's the value of building relationships with students?

Adam: And I think that's a good thing to round this out is it's that idea that even though a bulk of our conversation, it was kind of a little bit of interpersonal, it's philosophical. Why is this mentorship? What's the value in this? Right? And I think that's easy to talk about if you value it, but it does give results, right? It does. It's going to change the performance of people here. I know that if you don't have yourself anchored in what an institution like this is. Then you, when you're pressed, and it might not be often depending on your position, you might not have the appropriate response to how you're supposed to value a student's need if you're never having that interaction with them at any level. And look it, if you're working here and you have an attitude about young people needing help that isn't in any way dismissive, you need to get another job, right?

James: Yeah. This is not for you.

Adam: You need to go somewhere else. And again, I'm not saying that really anecdotally as far as it's something I experience all the time. If you wanted to make it transactional, I think that that's a way that you could look at it is that we're not going to add value to an institution if everybody doesn't have an attitude of mentorship on some level, right? If I'm having an interaction with you young person who's paying to be here, by the way.

James: Sure, absolutely.

Adam: My intention would be for you to leave my office or my building better than when you came in.

James: We had a student a couple of weeks ago, stop down in the MASS office student that we see all the time, student that we know, we're familiar with them, have other siblings that have graduated from university and still here matriculating at the university. And so we immediately went into, "Hey, hey, what's going on? What do you need? What do you need?" Quickly to discover, the only reason the student came in was to show us the new sneakers that she bought. That was all she wanted to do. And I harp on that story, and I used that because I need my staff - and everyone responded very favorably to it. No one was like, "get out of here. We have work that we, oh, cute shoes. Get out of here." We stopped what we were doing and celebrated this student's shoes. When the student left, I had a conversation with my staff and I let them know, "students don't always say thank you by using those words, but that was a thank you moment" out of all the people on this campus that that student could have gone to, out of all the spaces on this campus she could have visited, she came down here to tell us about how excited she was about these shoes.

And she wanted us to share that excitement. Drop everything that I'm working on right now and I'm going to cheer you on. And they wear attractive shoes, I'm not a sneakerhead by any stretch of the imagination. But I was like, those are pretty cool. I might even buy those. And just that type of interaction. Again, the deliberate choice that student made to cross the threshold from outside into our office space and say, "Hi, guys. Look at my shoes." Not, Hey, I have a problem. My financial aid didn't go through. I got a ticket. Can you help me? I'm failing it in class. Look at these shoes. And for us to respond in kind and say, oh my God, turn around. Lemme see the other side. Lemme see the bottom of it. That's a memory that that student will hold forever. Now, first of all, the comfort level that they had to know that they could come into our space and interrupt our work day and say, pause, stop what you're doing and look at my shoes.

You know that relationship has already been established. And so, the comfort level and the culture that exists. So, think about if that student did not have to pick and choose where they could go to get that type of reception. Think if that student can go anywhere on this campus, whether they knew the people in that office, knew the people in that building, knew that faculty member or not, and everyone responded like we did to that student in their shoes. It's a measure of success. Imagine the impact we get. It's a measure of success, right? Absolutely. And that's what I just love about the relational aspect of mentorship. Students will let you know, again, somewhat of a thankless position. Students don't always say, we get a lot of thank yous at graduation. Oh, thank you for everything you did. Thank you, thank you, thank you. But I don't get a thank you today. I won't get a thank you tomorrow, but on commencement, absolutely. And so I've had to learn how to find the thank you in the absence of the words. And that was a thank you moment, and I appreciated that. And I had to use it as that educational moment for my staff to realize, this student just told us thank you for being what she needs us to be for her by coming in and celebrating with her this moment.

Adam: I think that's beautiful. And at that, I'm going to get a new pair of Dunks and swing them past the MASS office at some point next year. James, thank you so much for coming in.

James: Thank you for having me.

Adam: It's been a great conversation. Yeah, I don't even know the difference between Dunks and the other Nikes. My son will tell me. I just know he is looking for a pair of Dunks right now. I appreciate you. I appreciate what you do.

James: Yeah, thank you so much.

Adam: Thank you so much for stopping by The Search Bar. Make sure that you like and subscribe so that you never have to search for another episode.

The views and opinions expressed in these episodes are strictly those of the host and guest speaker.