Successful students often attend class, get to know professors, ask for help, and utilize campus resources, among other adaptive strategies. Many of these strategies for success center on building meaningful interpersonal connections with peers, faculty, and staff, which may evolve into mentoring relationships. Recent research moves beyond conceptualizing mentoring relationships as strictly dyadic and instead highlights the importance of mentoring constellations. Like delineated clusters of stars, mentoring constellations involve simultaneous relationships a mentee may experience with multiple mentors. Varying in strength and interconnectedness, some mentoring relationships may be embedded or overlap, whereas others may not. Students are often active agents in building these relationships because they are unique to the students’ interests, goals, and identities, and different mentors may provide various types of support (Thurman and Vandermaas-Peeler 2023).

Although the term mentoring constellations is relatively new, the overarching idea stems from decades of existing research and theory. For example, in my field of psychology, developmental systems approaches have long highlighted the role of an individual’s environmental ecology in personal fulfillment (Bronfenbrenner 1979). In ecological frameworks, development occurs within complex systems of relationships affected by surrounding environments. All relationships are viewed as bidirectional, such that developing people both affect and are influenced by others in their environments.

Additionally, research focuses on how mentoring relationships can increase students’ cultural capital—that is, their assets and resources—within institutions of higher education. This research can be applied more broadly when aligned with other research on community cultural wealth models. Structural inequities exist within systems of higher education that negatively affect students from marginalized backgrounds. In light of these inequities, models of community cultural wealth explain how communities of color nurture their own cultural capital through different forms (Yosso 2005). A few examples of community cultural wealth—which may be obtained through mentoring constellations—include assets like aspirational capital, which involves hopefulness for the future, or navigational capital, which refers to skills that help one to maneuver through social institutions (Longmire-Avital 2019; Yosso 2005). Importantly, research on community cultural wealth focuses on how communities of color possess significant strengths. Much can be learned from this model and how it applies to empowering students to use their own strengths to build mentoring constellations as sources of significant support.

Mentoring models have historically focused predominately on what mentors can do to support students within mentoring relationships, not on what strategies mentees may use to build their own networks. Recent research has resulted in a few guides designed to support students in this process (see Connected Scholars Program; Felten et al. 2023). Together, this prior research emphasizes the importance of improving mentees’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors around building mentoring constellations.


Much research exists on the benefits of building meaningful relationships in college (Felten and Lambert 2020), and the importance of mentoring relationships specifically (Baker et al. 2022; Crisp et al. 2017; Russell et al. 2007; Vandermaas-Peeler et al. 2018). However, students may not be aware of these benefits. Further, students may not understand their own role to play within building mentoring relationships. I have worked with students who did not realize the importance of building relationships with faculty for nominations for awards and recognitions, or when it came time to ask for letters of recommendation. And I have known students who have resigned themselves to undergraduate careers without mentors because they did not recognize their own agency in building those relationships. Certainly, barriers exist in how easily networking may come to people from different backgrounds. Systems of higher education have historically been exclusionary to large swaths of the population, and many structural inequities still exist today, which can limit comfortability while trying to promote one’s own sense of belonging through mentoring relationships.

As described above, one way to help empower students in building mentoring constellations may be through highlighting their own community cultural wealth, social capital, and personal strengths (Yosso 2005). For example, Felten et al. (2023) encourage students to pay attention to moments when others point out things that are special and unique about them. Compliments like this could improve students’ own self-knowledge. Students can ask themselves, “What strengths do I bring?” or “What is it about me that makes mentoring I have received great?” (Palmer 2017). They might also ask, “Where do I need additional support?”


Students may also have varying attitudes when it comes to their self-efficacy, willingness to ask for help, and orientations towards building supportive relationships. Felten and colleagues (2023) argue that it is important for students to challenge their personal doubts about themselves regarding their abilities to succeed in college. Marginalized students often experience anxiety, shame, and self-stigma when it comes to seeking help and building supportive relationships in college (e.g., Chang et al. 2020; Winograd and Rust 2014). I share with students that we all need help sometimes, and it is extremely important to understand that help-seeking is actually a sign of strength. Seeking help means we are aware of ourselves and understand we are approaching the boundaries of our own knowledge and experience, but we are confident and resourceful enough to enlist the help of others. Once we internalize this attitude, we can act on it.


Students sometimes feel like burdens when they ask for help, but supporting students is one of the most valued parts of faculty and staff work. I encourage students to “help them help you.” This can be a hurdle for some, but engaging in self-advocacy behaviors can go a long way towards building networks of support. Building a mentoring relationship in one area may lead to other mentoring connections. For example, Felten and colleagues (2023) encourage students to interview someone from their existing network of support to ask about their own mentor networks of support. This could help give students further insights into what mentoring relationships they want to make or deepen in the future.

Altogether, improving students’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding building mentoring constellations can improve the likelihood that they will become more involved in this process, and they can learn to build relationships that intentionally and uniquely align with their learning goals (e.g., personal, identity, professional, etc.). Prior research shows that prompting marginalized students to reflect on their personal values can help boost academic achievement because it works to support their self-image in the face of threats and challenges surrounding them. Similarly, it is important for students to reflect on what makes their relationships in college meaningful and valuable to them (Morton 2019). Students with strong mentoring relationships in college experience enhanced academic outcomes and persist towards degree completion, enhancing their own social capital in the process.


Baker, Vicki L., Vanessa McCaffrey, and Caroline EN Manning. 2022. “Fostering Professional Development through Undergraduate Research: Supporting Faculty Mentors and Student Researchers.” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 30 (2): 216-234.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. 1979. The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Harvard University Press.

Chang, Janet, Shu-wen Wang, Colin Mancini, Brianna McGrath-Mahrer, and Sujey Orama de Jesus. 2020. “The Complexity of Cultural Mismatch in Higher Education: Norms Affecting First-Generation College Students’ Coping and Help-Seeking Behaviors.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 26 (3): 280.

Crisp, Gloria, Vicki L. Baker, Kimberly A. Griffin, Laura Gail Lunsford, and Meghan J. Pifer. 2017. Mentoring Undergraduate Students: ASHE Higher Education Report, Volume 43, Number 1. John Wiley & Sons.

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

Felten, Peter, Leo M. Lambert, Isis Artze-Vega, and Oscar R. Miranda Tapia. 2023. Connections Are Everything: A College Student’s Guide to Relationship-Rich Education. JHU Press.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2019. “What’s Their Capital? Applying a Community Cultural Wealth Model to UR.” Elon University Center for Engaged Learning (blog), March 4, 2019.

Morton, Jennifer. 2019. Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility. Princeton University Press.

Palmer, Parker J. 2017. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. John Wiley & Sons.

Russell, Susan H., Mary P. Hancock, and James McCullough. 2007. “Benefits of undergraduate research experiences.” Science 316 (5824): 548-549.

Thurman, Sabrina L., and Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler. 2023. “Adaptive Undergraduate Research Mentoring in a Constellation Model.” Perspectives on Undergraduate Research Mentoring 11.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Maureen, Paul C. Miller, and Jessie L. Moore, eds. 2018. Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research. Council on Undergraduate Research.

Winograd, Greta, and Jonathan P. Rust. 2014. “Stigma, Awareness of Support Services, and Academic Help-Seeking among Historically Underrepresented First-Year College Students.” Learning Assistance Review 19, no. 2.

Yosso, Tara J. 2005. “Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth.” Race Ethnicity and Education 8 (1): 69-91.

Sabrina Thurman is Associate Professor of Psychology at Elon University. As a first-generation college student from a low-income background, she is highly invested in working to increase access to higher education opportunities for historically underserved or excluded persons. She is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that build belonging, while maintaining a strong sense of personal identity, and that improve experiences for all people of varied intersecting identities. She serves as a seminar leader of the 2023-2025 Center for Engaged Learning seminar on Mentoring Meaningful Learning Experiences.

How to Cite This Post

Thurman, Sabrina. 2024. “Strategies to Improve Mentees’ Ability to Build Their Own Mentoring Constellations.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. January 2, 2024.