In Part 1 of this blog series, we described mentoring as situated in a larger sociocultural context and understood holistically and longitudinally, rather than as a snapshot of a meaningful moment (e.g., having a cup of coffee). In this post, we draw on our own experiences as mentors to highlight behind-the-scenes struggles of successful mentoring relationships.


Several years ago, I was invited to address a group of undergraduate scholars and their mentors. The program director surprised me with her introduction. Mentoring is hard, she said, and one of the things I appreciate about our speaker is that she is not afraid to have difficult conversations with her mentees. She then relayed an incident she’d overheard in our office suite. As one of my research students entered my office, I told her sternly, “I am NOT happy,” and closed my door with noticeable vigor. (Goodness, I thought, what an interesting way to frame my extensive history of mentoring experiences!)

Why was I so upset on this occasion? Let’s call the student Libby. Libby had not only failed to address my extensive edits in her latest draft of the research proposal, wasting both our time, but far worse, continued to characterize a vulnerable population of children and parents in a harmful, reductive way. I recall experiencing extreme frustration while reading the manuscript. We’ve had this conversation so many times, I thought, but nothing changes. I could not allow the research to proceed without significant intervention. It was a stressful, emotional situation for both of us. I was deeply concerned by her writing and my evident failure as her mentor, and Libby was stunned and contrite as I shared my frustration. With more intentionality and urgency than in our previous meetings, we searched together for strength-based models in published research and talked about the perils of deficit models of studying human development. We devised concrete next steps that would determine whether we could proceed with the proposal. This meeting marked a turning point in our relationship and in her research process, both of which improved significantly over the next few months.

However, this conversation in my office can only be understood within the full context of our mentoring relationship over time. Over the next two years, Libby met and exceeded my expectations as she conducted her research. She presented her research, co-authored a peer-reviewed publication, and headed to graduate school. We are still in touch today. This story represents one of dozens of relationships I’ve had with students over the years. A common thread throughout is that mentoring is meaningful, time-consuming, and intensive, and there are always low points to navigate and overcome, and successes and achievements to celebrate.


I have mentored many undergraduate research students through the triumphs and failures of research and often supported them as they figured out life after college. More recently I have had the opportunity to supervise PACE students, a mentored work experience on our campus. This program has created opportunities for mentoring students in a different context. The students work with and for me on projects or tasks that support our department, but often are not in our major, which can present challenges in delegating work. As a caveat here, I am not a great delegator of tasks and so this role is a challenge for me. I really envision working with students as a partnership and so creating space for the “both-and” in this context is a challenge. Students come into this program as first-year students and often stay in the job for four years. The opportunity to build a mentoring relationship as a supervisor is gratifying and powerful.

A few years ago, a student came to me after a bad start in a different job. I don’t know the details, but knew we had to build a rapport to start on a positive note. I met this student who was black, male-identified, and local. We started by setting a work schedule and training on some tasks that he could take initiative on when he came to work. It started with A LOT of him asking me what to do at every step and me reminding him he could just move forward and take initiative. Working with him on everything was not useful for me. Over the year I came to rely on his skills more and more and knew where his strengths and weaknesses were. We could work on weaknesses together, but he could run in areas of strength. He would share ideas of ways we could elevate components he was working on and in many ways gently reminded me that the student perspective is gold when designing websites and building advising materials.

He began to take ownership of our work and advocate for himself, and I had a partner in this role (Abbott and Shirley 2020; Ewell et al. 2022). The struggles of figuring out how each of us work allowed us to build trust in ways I don’t necessarily see in my research mentees. He began to ask for advice when struggling in classes to figure out resources through or out. He could float the idea to just take a course he wanted to even if it wasn’t a pre-req for his career or counting towards the major he just left or was maybe switching into. It was in these opportunities and experiences where I saw him take ownership of his education and begin to build his story, skillset, and next. He hesitantly asked about applying for an Elon Fellow position, which places our graduates with local health entities to work in the community. He wasn’t a top GPA student with a resume full of research and internship experiences. But we talked about what he brought to the table, partly his identities, but more importantly his vision of the courses and experiences that mattered to who he was and who he was becoming. We had honest conversations around race at Elon and in our local community. Our identities became a place where we could share and value different perspectives and experiences.

He got the Elon Fellow position and excelled in this role in ways the leaders of that program hadn’t expected. He brought his whole self and all his skills to every table, making meaningful contributions around health in our community. We continue to stay in touch although my mentoring is less needed as he builds a career in industry. But if he ever looks to graduate school, I expect we will pick up where we left off.


Mentoring goes far beyond the actual work, research, internship, project, etc. that initially brings students into a mentoring relationship. Students have reached out to me in times of crisis, asking for advice and support. I typically meet them with a tissue box, hot tea, and chocolate. (I’m not sure if there’s anything that can’t be helped with a little tea and chocolate.) One student arrived at my office in tears because her developmentally disabled aunt was killed by a car when she followed another person who walked into the crosswalk against the light. Students have shared frustrations with roommates, parents, and bigger, more existential questions (like who am I and what should I do when I grow up?). I’ve supported students who arrive at the painful conclusion that they don’t want to be a doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, (fill in the blank). Turns out, it was not their dream, but that of their parents, and it takes great courage to follow their own authentic path. 

Perhaps my most intense mentoring moments have occurred due to a student’s significant mental health issue. The poor mental health of adolescents and young adults is now a frequent topic in the popular press such as the New York Times (Richtel and Flanagan 2022). Researchers, clinicians, and policy makers seek new strategies to connect students to mental health services and to reduce the increasing rate of suicides in this population. In one instance, I physically walked a student to the counseling center and waited with him until he could be seen. In another, I told a brilliant undergraduate research student that I would need to suspend our work together until she sought treatment for a serious eating disorder. That was a very painful conversation for both of us. She subsequently entered into intensive treatment and found our research to be a source of pride and focus as she began her recovery. When I started mentoring undergraduate research, I had no idea the many forms that mentoring takes. It goes far beyond a high five and a statement of “good job.” For me it involves getting to know the whole person, if the student is interested in sharing. It means showing up when students are in crisis and serving as a sounding board for life’s bigger questions—hot tea (or coffee) and chocolate are small, but important comforts, to ease painful conversations.

In part 3 of this series, we’ll share recent research from an institutional self-study that reinforces why we conceptualize mentoring as a holistic, longitudinal practice.


Abbot, Sophia, and Cameron Shirley. 2020. “Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Retrospective.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University, November 4, 2020.

Ewell, Ellery, Sophie Miller, Gianna Smurro, Annelise Weaver, and Christina Wyatt. 2022. “Through the Eyes of a Student: Forming an Effective and Meaningful Partnership.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. June 24, 2022.

Richtel, Matt, and Annie Flangan. 2022. “‘It’s Life or Death’: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens.” New York Times, May 3, 2022.

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 2.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University, August 10, 2022.