Over the past few decades, numerous scholars have conducted research on mentoring relationships in college (Crisp and Cruz 2009; Jacobi 1991). Although much has been explored and written about mentoring undergraduates, Vandermaas-Peeler and Moore (2022) recently articulated a summative and thorough definition, which presents mentoring relationships as distinct from other meaningful relationships, in that they stimulate learning and development, are individualized, and evolve over time. This description and the context provided by Vandermaas-Peeler and Moore (2022) is helpful in understanding mentoring relationships as a learner-centered process.

While mentoring relationships have a clear positive influence on a variety of developmental and academic outcomes (Crisp et al. 2017), I want to point to a specific type of interaction mentors can and should (and many likely do) engage in with students that helps drive their effectiveness related to student success: deeper life interactions.

Deeper Life Interactions

In Trolian and Parker’s recent edited volume, Fostering Sustained Student-Faculty Engagement in Undergraduate Education, I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter on how “deeper life interactions” influence student success (Erck and Sriram 2023). These interactions, which occur around meaning, value, and purpose, go beyond the standard academic and social interactions typically accounted for in student relationships on campus. Students frequently engage in academic and social interactions on campus, but deeper life interactions get at topics around meaning-making, life’s big questions (e.g., Who am I? Does God exist?), spirituality, family and relationships, and purpose in society.

In the chapter, my colleague Rishi Sriram and I discuss the use of deeper life interactions to more fully understand the unique ways students succeed. Summarizing our previous research, we emphasize how such interactions are powerful in promoting various measures of student success with diverse populations. For example, multiple analyses with various different data sets showed that these interactions had strong effects for multiple thriving outcomes, such as engaged learning, academic determination, and social connectedness, as well as other variables, such as sense of belonging.

In short, deeper life interactions have a strong potential to positively influence students, and mentoring relationships are an opportunistic space to weave in these interactions for the sake of supporting undergraduates during college.

Mentoring Strategies

Given the proven empirical connection between deeper life interactions and student success outcomes, I want to encourage mentors to take into consideration three implications for practice.

1.) Go Deep

While engaging in a mentoring relationship, it can be tempting to keep interactions at a surface level. Not only does it require less energy to engage with students on topics that are strictly academic and social, but getting into conversation on meaning, value, and purpose can be daunting. Research by Kardas, Kumar, and Epley (2022) shows how miscalibrated expectations create barriers to deeper conversation, which is important in the early stages of a mentoring relationship. Further, their study shows that people may want deep and meaningful relationships with others, but may also be reluctant to engage in the deep and meaningful conversations that could create those relationships.

When mentors are willing to go “beneath the surface” so to say, it sets the tone early that the relationship can and should be one to explore personal development beyond mere academic and social domains of students’ lives. This can be helpful in a mentoring relationship because “being willing to dig a little deeper than one might normally go in conversation brings the opportunity to create a stronger sense of connection with others” (Kardas, Kumar, and Epley 2022, 395).

This is not intended to suggest all mentors should be mental health counselors for every mentee, but rather an encouragement to explore deeper life interactions with them. Such efforts may include initiating a conversation about a student’s role in society related to their major, or what spiritual development in college might look like for them, or about how their unique identities make up who they are today. In our chapter, Sriram and I give examples of how seemingly surface-level questions can lead to deeper life themes: Why are you studying biology? How do you see yourself using that to better the world? Do certain identities you hold fuel your interest in biology, and if so, how?  

It may seem peculiar that such unassuming conversation helps students in any measurable or specific way, but it is likely that students do not naturally engage in deeper life interactions with faculty in their typical day, and our research shows the value toward outcomes such as engaged learning. Whatever type of mentoring you do, go deep!

2.) Be Vulnerable & Know It Takes Time

Deeper life interactions are often avoided for fear of discomfort and awkwardness (I get it—I hate awkward interactions with students, too). For many, this results in shallow conversation and small talk, which is not the most fruitful in a mentoring relationship. As it turns out, however, that expectation of awkwardness is often just in our heads. Participants in the Kardas, Kumar, and Epley (2022) studies “consistently overestimated how awkward deep conversations would be more so than shallow conversations” (391).

Leaning into any anticipated awkwardness with deeper life interactions takes a certain level of openness, both on behalf of the mentor and the mentee. In our chapter, we recommend faculty be creative and bold in walking alongside students in these developmental interactions, as unpacking deeper life themes with students requires active listening and vulnerability. This type of vulnerability, while at times challenging, is a great opportunity to equalize status in a mentoring relationship (Thurman 2023).

Students may not be used to a faculty member asking personal questions or showing genuine interest in their private lives, and faculty may not feel experienced to engage in these conversations. But when they happen, they open a door for a more holistic student experience, and students are sent the message that there are concerned individuals on campus that care about them and want them to belong.

This demonstration of support, however, also takes time. Time is a precious commodity, and conversational exchanges with students can sometimes unconsciously turn into chat sessions that creep into hours designated for other tasks (e.g., class prep, research, writing, etc.). Before engaging in deeper life interactions, mentors should understand the investment of time these conversations sometimes take. That said, interactions that go beneath the surface are not just an occasion to break down walls between a student and a mentor, but a true opportunity to invest in their lives via the demonstrated influence they have on positive outcomes.

3.) Other Relationships Matter, Even If You’re Not Their Mentor

Although mentors will not serve as a primary mentor for all of their students, there are still opportunities to weave deeper life interactions into their other relationships through teaching, coaching, and advising. Applying deeper life interactions in the context of these roles does not inherently make these practices mentoring relationships, but it can add a depth to such relationships that allow for expanded possibility of student success.

Further, deeper life interactions with students in the context of teaching, coaching, and advising allows mentors—even if not their primary mentor—to contribute to the broader constellation of relationships students build during college (Vandermaas-Peeler 2021). As relationships are “the beating heart of the undergraduate experience” (Felten and Lambert 2020, 2), deeper life interactions are a pathway to reinforce positive outcomes through interactions around topics “beneath the surface.”

Although employing deeper life interactions in mentoring relationships takes effort, it is a labor that has a learner-centered return on investment: support of students’ growth and development. When mentors take the time to go deep, they demonstrate commitment to a more holistic version of success for students.


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. John Wiley & Sons.

Crisp, Gloria, and Irene Cruz. 2009. “Mentoring College Students: A Critical Review of the Literature between 1990 and 2007.” Research in Higher Education 50: 525–45, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-009-9130-2.

Erck, Ryan W., and Rishi Sriram. 2023. “Deeper Life Interactions and Student Success.” In Fostering Sustained Student-Faculty Engagement in Undergraduate Education, edited by Teniell L. Trolian and Eugene T. Parker III, 32–47. New York: Routledge.

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

Jacobi, Maryann. 1991. “Mentoring and Undergraduate Academic Success: A Literature Review.” Review of Educational Research 61 (4): 505–32. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1170575.

Kardas, Michael, Amit Kumar, and Nicholas Epley. 2022. “Overly Shallow?: Miscalibrated Expectations Create a Barrier to Deeper Conversation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 122 (3): 367–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000281.

Thurman, Sabrina. 2023. “Equalizing Status in Mentoring Relationships Fosters Collaboration.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. November 28, 2023. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/equalizing-status-in-mentoring-relationships-fosters-collaboration/.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen. 2021. “Mentoring for Learner Success: Conceptualizing Constellations.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. February 18, 2021. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-for-learner-success-conceptualizing-constellations.

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.

Ryan W. Erck is Executive Director of the Division of Student Success at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. As a scholar-practitioner, he enjoys studying systems and processes that help students and institutions succeed, and then implementing results to improve practice. His research interests include student interactions and success, academic and student affairs collaborations, leadership and organizational culture, and the impact of environments on learning and engagement. Preferred email: rerck@gardner-webb.edu

How to Cite This Post

Erck, Ryan W. 2024. “Mentoring Relationships That Go ‘Beneath the Surface.’” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. January 16, 2024. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-relationships-that-go-beneath-the-surface.