In part 1 of this blog series, we introduced mentoring as more than (just) having a cup of coffee, and in part 2, we shared snapshots from our own experiences with mentoring relationships. In this final post in the series, we’re sharing additional insight from recent research.

In a recent self-study on Mentoring for Learner Success, over 115 faculty, staff, and students participated in interviews about their mentoring relationships in our institutional context. During the interviews with faculty and staff, we also asked them to reflect on mentors in their own lives. Often, they reached back in time to identify mentors from high school or college. Although their stories were overwhelmingly positive and replete with examples of how mentors’ guidance changed the course of their lives for the better, there were also stories about tough conversations and challenges navigated over the course of long-term relationships.

An overarching theme in the analyses is that mentors work to balance challenge and support (Vandermaas-Peeler 2021). One faculty member shared that she didn’t like her undergraduate mentor at first, finding her highly critical and “strange.” During the interview she reflected, “There was an element of pushing me, nudging me, that can be hard, I think for students.” (We would add that it is also hard for mentors!) Their relationship evolved over time, eventually including in-depth mentorship of a research project and graduate school advice. The faculty member concluded, “The whole course of my career was affected by questions she asked and encouragement she gave me.”

Another participant characterized his mentor as “like an academic father to me who was encouraging, but also admonishing in all the kinds of ways that a relatively undisciplined, 20-year-old male in our culture sometimes needs.” This mentor saw his potential as a late-bloomer and “liked what I could do and showed me more clearly that I could do things at a higher level than I had been doing.” With the mentor’s challenge and support, the faculty member was accepted into the graduate studies program and the relationship continues to this day. Another faculty member similarly reflected on his own mentors, who saw his potential and encouraged and challenged him, as follows:

I think a consistent thread has been seeing in me potential that I didn’t know was there, holding me to a higher standard than I thought I was capable of, always kind of pushing me to take—whether it was my research or my writing or scholarship—to the next level, and again, in ways I didn’t imagine I could.

Mentors who avoid hard conversations and challenging circumstances may be missing opportunities to help students overcome failures and learn from their mistakes. One participant in the interview study commented on an absence of mentorship in the world of academic publishing: 

Something I never had, the mentorship around scholarship to tell me, “You will get rejected.” So when I got rejected on my first paper, I thought, “Well, that’s it for me. Go back to serving food.” Like, it’s all done. And so there are bad moments where … things I didn’t learn that really stand out.

Having no context for failure and limited experience with the publishing process, she did not realize that this is actually a very common occurrence and an opportunity to revise the paper and try again. Instead, she internalized the failure as uniquely her own and a sign that she wasn’t good enough for her chosen professional career path.

As mentors of undergraduates, we believe in the power of sharing our failures to help prepare them for life beyond college. We commiserate about editorial rejections or requests for revisions of our manuscripts, modeling tenacity and humility. We share the struggles of balancing careers and families to highlight the ongoing tensions and role conflicts. We discuss our identities and positionalities, and what they mean in our institutional context. As our colleague Sabrina Thurman notes, vulnerability is essential for honest, relational, and adaptive mentoring that fosters personal as well as academic growth (Thurman and Vandermaas-Peeler 2022). 

Developing and sustaining mentoring relationships for learner success is hard work. It is time-consuming, intensive, and emotional, and so much more than (just) having a cup of coffee together. While we firmly believe this is time well spent and our work as mentors represents our best synergies as teachers and scholars, we also assert that oversimplifying and focusing only on positive experiences does not do justice to this complex construct or the ongoing work of mentor development.


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

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen. 2021. “Mentoring for Learner Success: Developmental Relationships.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. September 2, 2021.

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 3.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University, August 12, 2022.