Recently, I mentored three undergraduate research students who graduated and went on to pursue graduate degrees and professional work. Through our mentoring relationships, which deepened over several years and involved navigating numerous unexpected challenges throughout the pandemic, I strove to create an environment that emphasized equalized status (i.e., mutual respect and mutual responsibility), which fostered true research collaborations between us. I used my expertise to enhance their learning experiences while they simultaneously used their own insights, skills, and knowledge to contribute meaningfully to our mentoring relationship.

We often think about mentoring relationships as being led by the mentor. Indeed, traditional frameworks have historically characterized mentoring as a one-to-one hierarchical relationship between mentors and mentees, but this model is riddled with power dynamics (Fletcher and Ragins 2007; Hammer, Trepal, and Speedlin 2014; Johnson 2016; Vandermaas-Peeler 2016). Certainly, mentors often possess significantly more professional capital, status, and institutional power than their mentees (Strayhorn 2022). But equalizing status can bridge gaps between ourselves and our mentees and enables shifts from a power-over to a power-with stance (Miller 1976, 1991).​ It is important for mentors and mentees to lean into having equalized status and reconceptualize mentoring relationships as co-constructed.

Indeed, mentoring relationships are inherently dynamic and can involve bi-directional developmental changes in both the mentee and mentor over time. As the relationship develops, relational and interdependent qualities of mentoring may emerge, including: both parties being authentic in the relationship, which involves self-knowledge and trust; mutual engagement, which refers to involvement and commitment; and empowerment, or agency to take action (Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten 2014; Liang et al. 2002). Other relational qualities of mentoring involve mutuality and reciprocity between mentors and mentees, meaning that the relationship feels increasingly shared and all members benefit from each other, albeit in different ways (Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten 2014; Fletcher and Ragins 2007; Mullen and Klimaitis 2021; Ragins and Kram 2007). What might the two parties in mentoring relationships gain from each other? Faculty partnering with students can lead to both parties experiencing enhanced motivation and learning, improved metacognitive awareness and a stronger sense of identity, and improvements in both teaching and learning experiences (Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten 2014). As I shared earlier, mentees bring their own identities, experiences, personal strengths, and assets to the mentoring relationship (e.g., Hammer, Trepal, and Speedlin 2014; Johnson 2016; Longmire-Avital 2019; Miller 1976, 1991; Shanahan 2018). My personal experiences corroborate research showing that collaborating with mentees helps mentors improve their mentoring and academic skills and knowledge. For example, mentors report that mentoring students in undergraduate research leads to enhancements in their own engagement and productivity (Hall et al. 2018). Mentees’ energy and enthusiasm can renew their mentors’ motivation to persist (Palmer 1997) and hold mentors accountable to the work when other obligations may lead them elsewhere. Mentees are often learning disciplinary skills and knowledge for the first time, which allows them to understand the work from different perspectives than their mentors, resulting in new insights. When it comes to mentees, having mentors who foster collaboration through equalizing status with them could help mentees take ownership of their own role in their mentoring relationships, which may facilitate mentees’ learning and creativity (Rendón 2008). So, how can mentors create learning environments that equalize status with mentees to foster truly collaborative relationships? I share a few potential ideas below.

It’s crucial to include a range of diverse perspectives within collaborative relationships with students, but doing so involves grappling with complex issues related to identity, respect, responsibility, and power (Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten 2014). Authenticity can be fostered before the mentoring relationship begins and involves the mentor building their own self-knowledge and trust. This “inner work” is not often recognized in academia but is arguably as important as the “outer work” that others recognize, such as awards and accolades (Rendón 2008). Critical self-reflection helps educators embrace, respect, and accept authentic versions of themselves more fully (Palmer 2017), which could help them become more equipped to provide this same acceptance for their mentees when building environments of mutual respect. When mentors do this work, they become more able to share how their personal identities, values, and experiences intersect with their enthusiasm for their fields of work. This process may take special consideration for faculty with marginalized identities, because in sharing this information, they will likely put themselves at some risk. However, in doing so, they also create opportunities to potentially build trust, affirm and even empower their mentee’s identities, and model to mentees how to take similar risks (Brueggemann and Moddelmog 2003; hooks 1994; Palmer 2017; Rendón 2008).

Mentors can also build trust and equalize status with mentees by engaging in shared vulnerability, which is a salient feature of relational mentoring​ (Johnson et al. 2013, 2014; Ragins and Kram 2007)​. Healthy emotional vulnerability involves sharing personal struggles that have already been resolved in ways that convey strength. Mentors usually have gone through similar challenges as their mentees, and thus have many examples of personal struggles in similar authentic contexts. For example, a mentor might share stories about their own hurdles in adjusting to life in college, or copies of their own undergraduate grades or transcripts revealing times they struggled academically, or challenging peer reviews they received on their own professional manuscript submissions. Sharing personal information like these examples presents opportunities where mentors could talk about their own strategies for navigating challenges in ways that help move the mentee forward.

When authenticity and mutual trust are in place, mentors could also help mentees consider their own meaningful contributions to the collaborative mentoring relationship. This process involves treating mentees as competent learners and helping them see their unique backgrounds, cultures of origin, and past experiences as sources of strength, knowledge, skills, and pride. Doing so helps improve students’ intentional engagement in their own learning (Moore 2023).

Equalizing status within mentoring relationships fosters environments for collaboration, but the possibility for creating this dynamic involves concerted efforts from both mentors and mentees, as it involves developing mutual respect and mutual responsibility. This can be a challenging dynamic to achieve, and thus providing students and faculty with professional development opportunities and space to reflect on their contributions to their mentoring relationships is crucial for fostering collaborative environments of engaged learning.


Brueggemann, Brenda Jo, and Debra Moddelmog. 2002. “Coming-out Pedagogy: Risking Identity in Language and Literature Classrooms.” Pedagogy 2 (3), 311-335.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten. 2014. Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

Fletcher, Joyce K., and Belle Rose Ragins. 2007. “Stone Center Relational Cultural Theory.” In The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice, edited by Belle Rose Ragins and Kathy E. Kram, 373-399.

Hall, Eric E., Helen Walkington, Jenny Olin Shanahan, Elizabeth Ackley, and Kearsley A. Stewart. 2018. “Mentor Perspectives on the Place of Undergraduate Research Mentoring in Academic Identity and Career Development: An Analysis of Award Winning Mentors.” International Journal for Academic Development 23 (1): 15-27.

Hammer, Tonya, Heather Trepal, and Stacy Speedlin. 2014. “Five Relational Strategies for Mentoring Female Faculty.” Adultspan Journal 13 (1): 4-14.

hooks, bell. 2014. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge.

Johnson, W. Brad. 2016. On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. Routledge.

Johnson, W. Brad, Jeffrey E. Barnett, Nancy S. Elman, Linda Forrest, and Nadine J. Kaslow. 2013. “The Competence Constellation Model: A Communitarian Approach to Support Professional Competence.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 44 (5): 343-354.

Johnson, W. Brad, Cessily J. Skinner, and Nadine J. Kaslow. 2014. “Relational Mentoring in Clinical Supervision: the Transformational Supervisor.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 70 (11): 1073-1081.

Liang, Belle, Allison J. Tracy, Catherine A. Taylor, and Linda M. Williams. 2002. “Mentoring College‐age Women: A Relational Approach.” American Journal of Community Psychology 30 (2): 271-288.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2019. “What’s Their Capital? Applying a Community Cultural Wealth Model to UR.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog) Elon University. March 7, 2019.

Miller, Jean Baker. 2012. Toward a New Psychology of Women. Beacon Press.

Miller, Jean Baker. 1991. Women and Power. In J. V. Jordan, A. G. Kaplan, J. B. Miller, & J. L. Stiver (Eds.), Women’s Growth in Connection: Writings from the Stone Center (pp. 197–205). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Moore, Jessie L. 2023. Key Practices for Fostering Engaged Learning: A Guide for Faculty and Staff. Routledge.

Mullen, Carol A., and Cindy C. Klimaitis. 2021. “Defining Mentoring: A Literature Review of Issues, Types, and Applications.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1483(1): 19-35.

Palmer, Parker J. 2017. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. John Wiley & Sons.

Ragins, Belle Rose, & Kathy E. Kram. 2007. The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice. Sage Publications.

Rendón, Laura I. 2008. Sentipensante (sensing/thinking) pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice and Liberation. Stylus publishing, LLC.

Shanahan, Jenny Olin. 2018. Mentoring Strategies that Support Underrepresented Students in Undergraduate Research. In M.Vandermaas-Peeler, P.C. Miller & J.L. Moore (Eds.). (2018). Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research (pp. 43 – 75). Council on Undergraduate Research.

Strayhorn, Terrell L. 2022. “Rearticulating “Cultural Navigators”: An Equity‐minded Framework for Student Success.” New Directions for Higher Education, 197: 23-34.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen. 2016. “Mentoring Undergraduate Research: Student and Faculty

Participation in Communities of Practice.” Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal 9 (1).

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. “Equalizing Status in Mentoring Relationships Fosters Collaboration.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. November 28, 2023.