Mentoring relationships develop in relationship-rich environments (Vandermaas-Peeler and Moore 2022). In higher education contexts, they might evolve from other meaningful relationships like teaching, advising, supervising, and coaching, but they require time to become more reciprocal and mutually beneficial (Mullen and Klimaitis 2021; Fletcher and Ragins 2007; Ketcham et al. 2018). Additionally, different people often fill distinctive mentoring functions, with some providing academic or career-focused support and others providing social, personal, or cultural support (Kram 1988; Crisp et al. 2017). Moreover, students’ support needs vary at different stages of their academic career. In our 2021 survey of Elon University first-year students and fourth-year students, conducted as part of the Elon “Mentoring for Learner Success” Lab that provided benchmark data as our campus embarked on a campus-wide mentoring initiative:

  • First-year students were more likely to indicate that their mentors helped them make social connections at Elon, while
  • Fourth-year students were more likely to indicate that their mentors helped them plan and prepare for life after college.

Given the varied functions that mentors can serve and the developmentally different support needs of students throughout their educational journeys, colleges and universities that foster mentoring relationships need to invest in multiple pathways for students to identify and develop mentoring relationships. When it comes to supporting mentoring relationships, one-size initiatives don’t fit all students – and might not even fit the same students at each stage of their college experiences.

In the 2021 survey and a parallel version with Elon University alumni, we learned that the majority of mentoring relationships develop informally over time.

First-year students were more likely than seniors and alumni to indicate that the people they identified as mentors were assigned to them – likely reflecting the significant number of transition-to-university programs that assign mentors to incoming students. Across groups, though, most mentoring relationships developed when students sought out their mentor(s), or they developed informally over time. First-year students developed mentoring relationships with peers, faculty, and staff, while some seniors and alumni expanded their mentoring constellations to include alumni and community members.

As part of the “Mentoring for Learner Success” institutional self-study, we also interviewed 118 faculty, staff, and students about their experiences with mentoring on our campus. That interview data complements what we learned from the survey. For example, some participants noted that they did not identify assigned relationships as inherently mentoring relationships:

I have been paired with other students, but it never really clicked for me. I guess I was just a little bit… I think I clicked more with adults than people my own age a lot of the time, especially in mentoring relationships. (UG 16)

In some cases, assigned relationships simply didn’t offer the types of support students sought from mentoring relationships:

I was assigned a mentor before coming to campus. However, I believe they were given randomly. And my mentor at the time was I believe a music theater major and therefore was not particularly helpful for me in navigating my relationships or courses or anything in the research world, because her experience was so different. (UG 64)

Other participants were grateful for assigned relationships that occurred early in their college experience:

I did not seek out mentors myself. They were given to me, and I am thankful that they were given to me. I think that you can’t expect, particularly first years are going to be like, “I am looking for a mentor and I’ve found one. It’s you.” I think that there needs to be plans in place. I think clubs. Now, I’m just remembering, we had a similar type of mentor thing in a club that I’m in. In Frisbee, we have spirit buddies where a rookie, someone who’s never played before, gets paired with someone older. Those sorts of things where the connections just thrust upon you, and there are some… I don’t want to say like you’re forced to have the relationship… no bueno. Flexibility is key, but then also having some safeguards that are like… I appreciate the honors scavenger hunt. They have events that are made for mentor/mentees, that encourage that connection. (UG 31)

Participants also reinforced that mentoring relationships needed time to develop:

I think that there’s definitely faculty members, and especially as a student we get to experience other relationships that are very similar to a mentor and helps us to achieve goals. But if those relationships perhaps aren’t as long lasting, or like a faculty member that you took one course with still might be a really great resource for achieving some of those goals, but might not be as significant as a professor who you took multiple classes with or worked closely with in a research environment or in an organization. (UG 64)

A lot of mentors that I think of are ones that I’ve had like really long relationships over my time at Elon with, and I’ve known [Mentor] since my second year at Elon. She was my WGS 100 professor, and she and I just got along so fabulously and we kind of kept that up. And then she asked me to TA for her, for Elon 101. So, then we built that kind of relationship together. And then I took another class with her this semester. So, we’ve just been really connected for a long time. (UG 65)

Although these findings provide an institution-specific snapshot of mentoring relationships, they highlight the need for colleges to foster multiple pathways for mentoring, rather than pursuing a one-size-fits-some model. An assigned peer, faculty, or staff mentor who helps a first-year student make social connections at the university when they begin their collegiate career might not be the best person to support planning and preparing for life after college as a graduating senior. Moreover, mentoring relationships don’t happen in a single meaningful moment; they need time to evolve.

As a result, university mentoring initiatives should invest in fostering relationship-rich campuses (Felten and Lambert 2020) and helping students develop strategies for identifying multiple meaningful relationships that could evolve into mentoring relationships and that address aspects of their developmental support needs within a mentoring constellation (Vandermaas-Peeler 2021).


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.

Fletcher, Joyce K., and Belle Rose Ragins. 2007. “Stone Center Relational Cultural Theory.” In The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice, edited by Belle Rose Ragins and Kathy E. Kram, 373-399.

Ketcham, Caroline J., Eric E. Hall, Heather Fitz-Gibbons, and Helen Walkington. 2018. “Co-Mentoring in Undergraduate Research: A Faculty Development Perspective.” Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, edited by Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, Paul C. Miller, and Jessie L. Moore: 155-179. Washington, D.C.: Council for Undergraduate Research.

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

Mullen, Carol A., and Cindy C. Klimaitis. 2019. “Defining Mentoring: A Literature Review of Issues, Types, and Applications.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1483(1): 19-35.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen. 2021. “Mentoring for Learner Success: Conceptualizing Constellations.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. February 18, 2021.

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.

Jessie L. Moore is Director of the Center for Engaged Learning and Professor of Professional Writing & Rhetoric in Elon University’s Department of English. She also teaches in Elon’s Masters of Higher Education program. In 2021, Dr. Moore received Elon University’s Distinguished Scholar Award for her research on engaged learning, the writing lives of college students and alumni, and multi-institutional scholarship of teaching and learning.

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.

How to Cite this Post

Jessie L. Moore and Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler. 2022. “Mentoring for Learner Success: Multiple Pathways to Mentoring Relationships” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. November 15, 2022.