I grew up on a mountainside in rural Appalachia and spent nearly every day of my childhood playing outside. Being from a low-income family and surrounded by the natural world, I entertained myself by exploring plants, animals, soil, water, and rocks around me. I felt immense curiosity about the world and loved learning. Having the freedom to explore settings and ideas that interested me deepened my enthusiasm for what I came to know as engaged learning (Moore 2023).

As the first in my family to attend college, I brought this enthusiasm for learning with me in the pursuit of a university education. But I found myself straddling two worlds – my culture of origin and the culture of the academy and felt I did not fully belong in either environment. I initially felt intimidated by faculty, who, in my view, possessed great authority and deserved the utmost respect. I felt strongly that I needed to prove my worthiness to even be on campus, and I was not aware of how to pursue engaged learning opportunities, which often occur outside of classroom spaces. My experience is consistent with troubling paradoxical research on first-generation college students (FGCS), showing that compared to their continuing-generation peers, FGCS are less likely to develop relationships with faculty and other students outside of class, but are much more likely to benefit from those relationships (Felten and Lambert 2020; Moschetti and Hudley 2008; Pascarella et al. 2004; Terenzini et al. 1996).

Fortunately, I was able to overcome some of these hurdles in part because of the meaningful mentoring relationships I developed during my undergraduate career. Mentoring relationships often involve more experienced, supportive mentors who pass on knowledge or wisdom to mentees. They are learner-centered relationships, but are co-constructed in intentional, collaborative ways that can be mutually beneficial, reciprocal, and transformational for both or all parties as development unfolds (Irby 2013; Johnson 2016; Shanahan et al. 2015; Vandermaas-Peeler 2016). Importantly, mentoring relationships are central to many types of high-impact engaged learning experiences (Kuh 2008).

Most of the mentoring I experienced as a student came in the context of undergraduate research. I was invited to join research teams from professors and academic advisors. Having no idea these opportunities even existed prior to those invitations, or that I would be capable enough to participate, I nevertheless trusted myself and my future mentors and pursued opportunities as they presented themselves. I leaned into my enthusiasm for learning and overcame the anxiety associated with networking in completely new environments, learned self-advocacy skills, and learned to recognize the important role I played in my own mentoring relationships. I learned how to connect with different faculty mentors who provided different types of support based on needs I recognized within myself. This helped me on my way to building my own constellation of mentors (Vandermaas-Peeler 2021), which wove together multiple supportive relationships uniquely tailored to me. Indeed, FGCS who may feel an initial sense of alienation on campus can improve their supportive relationships and their own sense of belonging in the academy by acknowledging their own experience, actively working to become more engaged, and building meaningful relationships themselves (Havlik et al. 2020; Stuber 2011). These mentored research experiences gave me crucial training that not only enhanced my undergraduate education, but also equipped me with transferable skills I used as I earned my doctorate degree in developmental psychology.

Now reflecting on my undergraduate career as a tenured faculty member, it is evident how much those mentoring relationships I experienced supported my academic success. Indeed, much research shows how skillful mentoring can enhance mentees’ sense of belonging, persistence towards their degrees, academic achievement, and professional identity and competencies (Crisp et al. 2017; Felten and Lambert 2020; Ragins and Kram 2007; Vandermaas-Peeler, Miller, and Moore 2018). But, less is known about how mentees enhance and contribute to their mentoring relationships. We know from the literature that mentor relationships are co-created, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial. However, we do not often consider what about us makes the mentoring we have received great, but this is an important aspect of adopting a strengths-based framework in conceptualizing mentoring relationships. 

Strengths-based frameworks posit that we are all shaped by our unique backgrounds, cultural origins, and past experiences in meaningful ways, and these developmental histories influence the strengths, assets, and resources we bring into our work and mentoring relationships. Strengths-based frameworks within mentoring relationships could involve treating students as pioneers who possess the resources to be successful. For example, FGCS tend to be adaptive and resilient when encountering new experiences in the academy (Havlik et al. 2020). In my experience, growing up with freedom to explore the natural world cultivated in me an enthusiasm for learning that I have used to springboard my career as an academician. Creating space to help students recognize and capitalize on their strengths can help students feel they matter, can improve academic self-efficacy, motivation, and engagement, and can close racial achievement gaps (e.g., Cohen et al. 2006, 2009; Flett, Khan, and Su 2019; Rendón 2008; Soria and Stubblefield 2014). How can mentors and mentees co-create contexts that reveal meaningful contributions and strengths of both (or all) parties? How might mentees benefit from an improved understanding of their own contributions to meaningful mentoring they receive?

I count myself very lucky to have received deep care and immense support from skillful mentors throughout my career, and I also recognize I have made meaningful contributions to each of my mentoring relationships. Over the next few years, I will be sharing reflective and analytical blog posts focusing on mentoring meaningful learning experiences in higher education. Throughout my work, I will emphasize the importance of using strengths-based frameworks, especially with students from historically marginalized backgrounds. Certainly, learner-centered, relational, and developmental mentoring relationships are reliant on skillful and supportive mentors. But, how might all students’ engaged learning experiences be improved with the recognition that additional factors that enhance mentoring experiences lie within themselves?


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Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen. 2021.  “Mentoring for Learner Success: Conceptualizing Constellations” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. February 18, 2021. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-for-learner-success-conceptualizing-constellations.

Sabrina Thurman is Associate Professor of Psychology at Elon University. As a first-generation college student from a low-income background, she is highly invested in working to increase access to higher education opportunities for historically underserved or excluded persons. She is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that build belonging, while maintaining a strong sense of personal identity, and that improve experiences for all people of varied intersecting identities. She serves as a seminar leader of the 2023-2025 Center for Engaged Learning seminar on Mentoring Meaningful Learning Experiences.

How to Cite This Post

Thurman, Sabrina. 2023. “A Personal Reflection on What Makes Mentoring Great.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. July 25, 2023. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/a-personal-reflection-on-what-makes-mentoring-great.