Friday, December 10, 2010

How to Find a Professional Mentor if You're in College

When I was in college, I relied greatly on the advice of my school newspaper advisor, who had just left a bureau job for UPI to enter the college teaching arena. I found his advice invaluable -- much more so that some of my professors who hadn't been in the "real" working world in more than two decades.

Many college students today feel the same way. While they value the knowledge their professors can give them, they're also hungry to hear "in the trenches" stories and advice from professionals. That's what this organization I wrote about for Gannett/USA Today aims to do:

Saquoia Lewis, 21, says she's always wanted a mentor.

Coming from a family where no one has graduated from college, Lewis says finding someone to help her make educational and career choices was difficult.

"I just didn't know which direction to go," says Lewis, now a College of Southern Nevada student.

That's when Lewis found StudentMentor, a nonprofit organization that matches college students with volunteer mentors for free. Lewis says she's found a professional not only willing to help guide her with college decisions but someone who understands what she's going through because of a similar background.

"I've learned a lot from her," says Lewis of the human resources professional she now e-mails at least twice a week with questions. "She has had an interest in psychology, just like I do. We spend time talking about our families, but she also encourages me to not procrastinate and to stay in school."

Ashkon Jafari, co-founder and executive director of StudentMentor, says the mentoring organization was launched because while students in grades K-12 have plenty of programs to find mentors, college students often don't have anyone to guide them.

Jafari, 24, says he received critical advice from a professional while in school regarding his career path and college classes and believes others students should have the same kind of mentoring experience. Many students, he says, need networking and career advice, especially as they face a tough job market upon graduation.

At the same time, more professionals are willing to be mentors to college students, Jafari says. He says many unemployed professionals are looking to fill their time with a worthwhile cause, and some 300 mentors have signed up since the site was launched in October, he says.

"Our program also is different because we don't put people through tedious sign-up processes," he says. "If you're a student at any college, anywhere, all you do is sign up and you'll immediately see a list of possible (mentor) matches. You review their background, click on the person you like and then you'll be able to message them."

So far, professionals who have signed up to be mentors include doctors, lawyers, retired business executives and midlevel workers across a wide range of industries, he says.

"We even let upperclassmen — like those in law school — serve as mentors," he says. "They can offer a lot of advice about what classes to take."

Jafari says both mentors and mentees can have multiple contacts, and it's OK for those involved to end communications if they believe it's not a good fit for some reason. "The mentorship lasts as long as they want," he says, adding the organization checks in with those involved in mentor relationships to monitor progress and solicit feedback for making improvements.

After six months, the mentorships are automatically "closed," but can be continued if the mentors and mentees desire, he says.

StudentMentor is hoping to attract corporate sponsorships to stay afloat, and right now is being run with the help of dozens of volunteers, many of them right out of college.

"We know there is a huge need out there. Many students don't have access to professionals, or they go to schools where it's harder to get connections, for example, with someone working on Wall Street. This is a way to find out how to get yourself on that path, if that's what you want," Jafari says.

Jafari quit a full-time, well-paying finance job for a high-tech company to launch this venture. He says he is just one of the "idealistic individuals" who see StudentMentor as a chance to help other college students.

"This is what I want to do," he says. "I want to work for a nonprofit, and we want to help other students find what it is they want to do."

Says Lewis: "My mentor understands me because she was in the same boat, working for little money and going to school. But she now makes a lot of money and has a career. That motivates me."

Have you had a great mentor in your life? What made them so special?


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