In their recent book, Relationship-Rich Education, Elon colleagues Drs. Peter Felten and Leo Lambert weave together dozens of stories emphasizing the importance of meaningful connections for successful learning and well-being in higher education. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, they offer extensive evidence of the power of relationships between learners and peers, staff, and faculty, asserting that all students should “create webs of relationships that will sustain them through, and beyond, college” (Felten and Lambert 2020, 6). Some of the transformative experiences recounted by students and alumni are akin to flashbulb memories, brief but highly memorable moments that alter the course of an individual’s future. Other relationships emerge as sustained, developmental mentoring relationships that guide future pathways over many years — possibly even a lifetime. 

There is no universal definition of “mentoring” in the literature (e.g., Jacobi 1991; Crisp et al. 2017). We have very little information about what distinguishes mentoring from other relationships, nor do we understand which mentoring functions are associated with specific academic, personal, cultural, or social outcomes (Crisp et al. 2017). Most scholars and practitioners agree with Kram (1988), one of the preeminent scholars on mentoring in the workplace, that mentoring involves career-oriented, professional skill-building facets as well as psychosocial, interpersonal characteristics related to identity development. Johnson, Rose, and Schlosser (2010) identified a few critical, distinctive characteristics of academic mentoring relationships, including endurance, reciprocity, emotional support, career assistance, and a safe environment for exploration. Mentors demonstrate greater achievement and experience than their mentees and serve as role models. Ideally, mentees experience positive career and personal outcomes, including identity transformation (Johnson et al. 2010).  

The identities of the mentor and the mentee, and the sociocultural context in which their relationships are situated significantly influence mentoring processes and outcomes. In a recent blog post, Elon colleague and previous Center for Engaged Learning (CEL) Scholar Dr. Buffie Longmire-Avital elucidated the importance of critical mentoring for historically underrepresented minority students (HURMS). Mentors must build trust and work proactively to facilitate HURMS’ integration into the challenging institutional ecology of a predominantly white institution (PWI). In an insightful analysis comparing her oldest son’s scaffolding of his younger brother’s play during a game of Monopoly Jr. to a “path for inclusion,” Longmire-Avital highlights the importance of “intentional dismantling” of oppressive, inequitable systems of education and offers a reparative framework of critical mentoring of HURMS. (You can find other compelling, critical reflections on diversity, equity, and inclusion in high-impact practices on the CEL website.) 

Although mentoring has long been conceptualized in the literature as a traditional one-to-one hierarchical model, this does not capture the authentic complexities of social relationships. It is well-known that individuals form complex networks or webs of relationships in personal and professional contexts (Felten and Lambert 2020; Higgins and Thomas, 2001; McCabe, 2016). McCabe (2016) developed a typology of friendship networks in college and connected them to particular academic and social outcomes. For example, some friendship networks are cohesive, with all members interacting regularly, while others are clustered into separate groups in which the friends in different groups do not typically know each other. In her analysis, McCabe demonstrates that the nature of these peer relationships can impact a wide range of outcomes, including social support, academic achievement, retention and graduation, and even friendship diversity after college.  

Scholars of mentoring in the workplace also conceptualize mentoring as a developmental network or “constellation,” defined as “the set of relationships an individual has with people who take an active interest in and action to advance the individual’s career by assisting with his or her personal and professional development” (Higgins and Thomas 2001, 224). Like Felten and Lambert (2020), these scholars recognize that the term “mentor” applies only to certain types of meaningful, sustained relationships, and not to all developmental relationships. Although they acknowledge the importance of a primary mentoring relationship within the constellation, Higgins and Thomas (2001) use the term “developers” to refer to anyone who provides developmental assistance. Drawing on social network theory and research in the business sector, Higgins and Kram (2001) identify two key facets of developmental networks: 1) the diversity of the network (conceptualized as the range of social systems represented by developers); and 2) the strength of the relationships (e.g., communication, emotional closeness, and reciprocity). Networks characterized by greater diversity and strength are hypothesized to be associated with the highest personal learning, with developers who are highly motivated to support the protégé and facilitate access to a broad range of information. Unfortunately, no known research tests this or related hypotheses in the context of higher education. 

Recognizing the importance of mentoring relationships for success and well-being not only in college but beyond, universities have begun to center mentoring in their strategic planning. Elon University’s new plan, Boldly Elon, leads with an ambitious agenda: 

Through a groundbreaking mentoring model, students will learn to build developmental networks that include peers, staff and faculty, as well as others beyond the university. 

This lifelong constellation of mentors will emerge as a hallmark of an Elon education, engaging all students in developing essential skills and fluencies – writing, speaking, creative problem solving, collaboration, intercultural learning, data competency, media literacy, ethics and personal and professional agility. 

Boldly Elon

In order to conduct a careful study of the current landscape of mentoring in higher education and at Elon, an Elon team is working with the American Council on Education (ACE) on their new Learner Success Lab (LSL). Elon is one of ten institutions in the inaugural cohort, funded by the Strada Education Network. Over the next year and a half, Elon faculty and staff will be working with a consultant, Lyssa Palu-ay, Dean of Justice, Equity and Transformation at MassArt, to conduct a self-study and review existing activities and capacities related to mentoring for learner success. Led by Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, Amy Allocco, Nancy Carpenter, and Sylvia Muñoz, the study includes a steering committee comprised of 14 faculty and staff colleagues from across the institution. The LSL will culminate in a set of recommendations to be considered by a future university-wide committee. In her charge to the committee, President Book described the work of the LSL as an “on-ramp” for future planning and implementation of the mentoring initiatives in Boldly Elon. 

Conceptualizing mentoring through a constellation model offers myriad opportunities to support students’ learning and development. Through the process of the ACE self-study, we are examining the potential for mentoring relationships and partnerships within and beyond the institution. We will share more about the process and our findings as the self-study commences, and we welcome your input any time. Feel free to send us an email at  


Crisp, Gloria, Vicki L. Baker, Kimberly A. Griffin, Laura Gail Lunsford, and Meghan J. Pifer. 2017. “Mentoring Undergraduate Students.” ASHE Higher Education Report, 43, no. 1. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Felten, Peter, and Leo M. Lambert. 2020. Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Higgins, Monica C., and Kathy E. Kram. 2001. “Reconceptualizing Mentoring at Work: A Developmental Network Perspective.” Academy of Management Review 26, no. 2: 264-288.

Higgins, Monica C., and David A. Thomas. 2001. Constellations and Careers: Toward Understanding the Effects of Multiple Developmental Relationships.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 22: 223–247.

Jacobi, Maryann. 1991. Mentoring and Undergraduate Academic Success: A Literature Review.” Review of Educational Research 61, no. 4: 505-532.

Johnson, W. Brad, Jeffery 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, no. 5: 343–354.

Johnson, W. Brad, Gail Rose, and Lewis Z. Schlosser. 2010. “Student-Faculty Mentoring: Theoretical and Methodological Issues.” The Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring: A Multiple Perspectives Approach, edited by T.D. Allen and L.T. Eby, 49-69. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Kram, Kathy E. 1988. Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. University Press of America.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2020. “Critical Mentoring Is Custom Fitted to the Student.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog). April 2, 2020.

McCabe, Janice M. 2016. Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler is a Professor of Psychology who came to Elon University in 1995.  Her scholarly interests include children’s learning in collaborative, authentic experiences; adult guidance of children’s inquiry and discovery; sociocultural and global contexts of learning; and undergraduate research mentoring. Maureen co-led the Center’s 2014-2016 research seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research. Maureen is now serving as the Director of Elon’s new Center for Research on Global Engagement, and in this role she fosters the scholarship of global engagement on campus and with national and international collaborators.

How to cite this post

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen. (2021, February 18).  Mentoring for Learner Success: Conceptualizing Constellations [Blog Post]. Retrieved from