The benefits of work-integrated learning (WIL) are far reaching, with overwhelmingly positive outcomes for students, employers, and university mentors alike. However, community and employer placements are not without risk to each party, as students move out of the relative safety of the classroom environment and into the “real world” (Fleming and Hay 2021a).

In this final post of our three-part series (read part one and part two), we will look at the role of the university-based mentor in managing risk during WIL. Studies suggest that a student’s experience in WIL is significantly enhanced by a clear and strong relationship between their academic and site mentors (Hora et al. 2020), suggesting that the role of this mentor is critical to a student’s success in their placement. University mentors might include WIL staff or disciplinary faculty, and these mentors must consider how to mitigate risk for the student but also for the university itself (e.g., Emslie 2010; Hay and Fleming 2021).

Student Safety from the Mentor’s Perspective

There are several major risks to students that university mentors should consider and address head on and as they arise. The primary of these is student health and safety This may show up as commonly considered employment risks such as workplace safety (e.g., appropriate PPE and appropriate supervision for difficult or dangerous tasks), harassment, and violence. The mentor’s opportunities to support the student around these risks include conducting site visits, having an ongoing relationship with the site mentors, appropriate and ongoing supervision with the student, and preparation for the student on how to handle these situations should they arise (see Fleming and Hay 2021a, 2021b, for a full discussion). Preparing students for potential safety concerns is a critical function for mentors and must be done thoughtfully and in advance of the student’s placement beginning. Contacting, visiting, and maintaining a relationship with site staff is essential to mentors’ ability to be alert to and mitigate potential risk.

In addition to considering workplace safety, it is essential that university mentors consider students’ personal and identity-based safety in the workplace. For example, how can we ensure safety for students from marginalized backgrounds who are participating in placements in communities where there have been frequent protests that show anti-black and anti-LGBTQ sentiments? How do we help students who may have “invisible” diversity choose when and how to disclose their needs to employers? Significant past research shows that implicit and explicit biases affect placement, satisfaction, and safety of interns and employees who are female, People of Color, in the LGBTQ+ community, and who have disabilities (see Mallozzi and Drewery 2019; Hay and Fleming 2021). Research suggests that while many employers have a statement regarding inclusion, that few have policies that apply to interns (Itano-Boase et al. 2021). Thus it is critical that university mentors consider and address student needs in ways that support students in feeling safe and valued in their identity.

How can we as mentors support this safety? I write this as a white, cis-gendered female college-professor, and am mindful that my writing on this topic is reflective of these experiences. I welcome feedback and discussion that includes different perspectives. It is first important to realize that we may not share every identity group with our students and that our students may have multiple intersecting identities; further, our students will be in different places with regard to their own desire to discuss, disclose, and advocate for themselves. And so our support of students must be thoughtful and individualized. It is up to us as mentors (particularly those of us from majority backgrounds) to educate ourselves to be prepared to support out students. As discussed by scholar Veronica Padilla Vriesman (2020), mentors of students of color should educate themselves as much as possible culturally and with regard to the systemic disparities that may come into play for their students. She suggests that mentors commit to advocacy for their students and meet student needs and concerns receptively rather than defensively. Valencia-Forrester, Webb, and Backhaus (2019) further suggest a mental shift in mentoring from “best” practice to “wise” practice. They suggest that mentors put inclusion forward by looking at individual outcomes and growth rather than standardized outcomes and suggest that we should focus on supporting students’ individualized needs such that there is no one “best” practice. They call on mentors to consider issues of language, cultural barriers, caregiving needs, geographic limitations, and issues of income in addition to the identity issues raised above.

Readiness and Suitability of the Student and the Site from the Mentor’s Perspective

At the same time that university mentors are managing student safety, they are also responsible for being mindful of the university’s risk in WIL relationships. Having students go into the community for placements can bring fruitful relationships for the university and incredible experiences for students, but also opens the university up to legal, financial, operational, and reputational risks and more (see Fleming and Hay 2021a, 2021b). In the case of an incidence of violence, harassment, or other legally/ethically concerning event, the university may share liability for the student’s safety. Fleming and Hay (2021b) suggest that universities should have clear internal policies and procedures clearly addressing legal/ethical risk and should consider having written agreements addressing liability with employer partners. They also suggest that universities need adequate resources for dealing with legal risk, including appropriate insurance and full staffing for support of WIL. With regard to reputation, the university may be affected if the university/student/employer relationship sours. This may occur if the placement site mistreats interns, or if the university interns do not conduct themselves in appropriate ways. The university mentor is certainly not the only person responsible in this situation – far from it – but they play a key role in creating harmony and setting clear expectations. As mentors it is our responsibility to know our university policies regarding risk in WIL, and to communicate those both to students and partners on the front end of the experience. Written documentation, clear expectations on all sides, and frequent communication between students, placements, and mentors, can set up a successful WIL partnership (Fleming and Hay 2021b).


So much to manage, so little time! As university-based mentors, we have many balls in the air at any given time with one student in a WIL placement, never mind a whole class or program! Appropriate staffing and resourcing from the university is essential to our ability to be able to manage the university’s risk and help keep students safe. Many techniques that support students also protect the university and vice versa – clear expectations out front, regular communication, and building solid ongoing relationships facilitate great experiences for all involved.

Your student’s preparation and success starts with yours! If you have not read the first post in the series, consider the overall risks and benefits of WIL from each perspective: the student, the employer, and you. As you consider risk from the student’s perspective, open a line of communication with students and do not be afraid to address issues of safety head on. As discussed, understanding your university’s policies and plans is a great place to start. As you reflect on the risks of WIL in your institutional context, what are your next steps?


Emslie, Michael. 2010. “Out of the Too Hard Basket: Promoting Student’s Safety in Cooperative Education.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education 11 (2): 39-46.

Fleming, Jenny, and Kathryn Hay. 2021a. “Strategies for Managing Risk in Work-Integrated Learning: A New Zealand Perspective.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 22 (4): 553-564.

Fleming, Jenny, and Kathryn Hay. 2021b. “Understanding the Risks in Work-integrated Learning.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 22 (2): 167-181.

Hay, Kathryn, and Jenny Fleming. 2021. “Keeping Students Safe: Understanding the Risks for Students Undertaking Work-integrated Learning.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 22 (4): 539-552.

Hora, Matthew, Zi Chen, and Pa Her. 2020. “Problematizing College Internships: Exploring Issues with Access, Program Design and Developmental Outcomes.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 21 (3): 235-252.

Itano-Boase, Miki, Rochelle Wijesingha, Wendy Cukier, Ruby Latif, and Henrique Hon. 2021. “Exploring Diversity and Inclusion in Work-integrated Learning: An Ecological Model Approach.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 22 (3): 253-269.

Mallozzi, Rebecca and David Drewery. 2019. “Creating Inclusive Co-op Workplaces: Insights from LGBTQ+ Students.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 20 (3): 219-228.

Padrilla Vriesman, Veronica. 2020. “A Guide for non-Black Mentors of Black Students and Underrepresented Students of Color in STEM.”

Valencia-Forrester, Faith, Fleur Webb and Bridget Backhaus. 2019. “Practical Aspects of Service Learning Make Work-integrated Learning Wise Practice for Inclusive Education in Australia.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 20 (1): 31-42.

CJ Eubanks Fleming is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Elon University, where she serves the Faculty Fellow for Internships in the College of Arts and Sciences. In this role she evaluates department- and university-level data regarding internship outcomes, shares internship best practices with faculty, and serves as a liaison between faculty/ students and the university’s career center. She also serves as a seminar leader for the 2022-2024 research seminar on Work-Integrated Learning.

How to Cite this Post

Fleming, CJ. 2022. “Facilitating Safety in Work-Integrated Learning: Responsibilities of Academic/University Mentors.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. October 4, 2022.