What comes to mind when you hear the word mentor? What images and emotions are evoked by the term mentoring? Acknowledging that the concept of mentoring has become ubiquitous, not only in higher education but also in popular culture and the entertainment media, Eby and colleagues concluded that “mentoring is everywhere, everyone thinks they know what mentoring is, and there is an intuitive belief that mentoring works” (2010, 7). This instinctive belief in the power of mentoring also conjures a range of positive emotions. Mentoring is a warm puppy, to borrow from the genius of Charles Shultz. When people tell stories of their mentors, they share tales of meaningful conversations over steaming cups of coffee. But mentoring is not (just) having a cup of coffee.

Please don’t misunderstand. We embrace occasions to pause and engage in conversation over a beverage. Indeed, our own university (Elon University) thrives on this practice, with a special time and day set aside for College Coffee when the whole campus is invited to come together for mid-morning refreshments and comradery. Our institution has designated funds for students, staff, and faculty to meet for lunch several times a semester. We participate in and organize communities of practice that meet regularly in a local coffee house to support each other’s work. We appreciate these opportunities and acknowledge their importance in a relationship-rich culture (Felten and Lambert 2020). Although these connections have the potential to catalyze mentoring relationships, they are not unto themselves mentoring.

Mentoring must be situated in a larger sociocultural context and can only be understood holistically and longitudinally, rather than as a snapshot of a meaningful moment. To equate one-off conversations with mentoring ignores decades of research and practice, and oversimplifies the complexity, intensity, and, frankly, hard work of being a mentor (Crisp et al. 2017; Mullen and Klimaitis 2021; Vandermaas-Peeler and Moore 2022). We find that people rarely publicly discuss the difficult conversations, the frustrations, or the painful tensions that are navigated in mentoring relationships over time. But as mentors engaged in supportive communities of practice, we find it helpful to engage in open and honest discussions about the challenges as well as the successes (Hall and Ketcham 2021; Thurman and Vandermaas-Peeler 2022).

In this blog series we draw on our own experiences (in part 2) and recent research (in part 3) to highlight the struggles behind the scenes of some of our most successful mentoring relationships.


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.

Eby, Lillian T., Jean E. Rhodes, and Tammy D. Allen. 2010. “Definition and Evolution of Mentoring.” In Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring, A Multiple Perspectives Approach, edited by Tammy D. Allen and Lillian T. Eby. Wiley-Blackwell.

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

Hall, Eric E., and Caroline J. Ketcham. 2021. “Mentoring with Mental Health in Mind.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. November 2, 2021. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-with-mental-health-in-mind.

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.

Thurman, Sabrina L., and Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler. 2022. “Adaptive Mentoring of Undergraduate Research.” Workshop for the Southeastern Psychological Association, March 2022, Hilton Head, S.C.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen, and Jessie L. Moore. 2022. “Mentoring for Learner Success: Defining Mentoring Relationships.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. April 6, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-for-learner-success-defining-mentoring-relationships.

Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Research on Global Engagement at Elon University.  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. She co-led the Center’s 2014-2016 research seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research.

Cynthia D. Fair is a Professor of Public Health Studies and Human Service Studies and department chair of Public Health Studies at Elon University.  Her clinical and research interests include HIV-infected and affected youth and women, as well as HIV-related stigma and discrimination. 

Caroline J. Ketcham is a Professor of Exercise Science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Her CEL Scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite This Post

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen, Cynthia Fair, and Caroline Ketcham. 2022. “Mentoring for Learner Success: Mentoring is not (just) having a cup of coffee, part 1.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University, August 8, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-for-learner-success-mentoring-is-not-just-having-a-cup-of-coffee-part-1.