Alumni Make Mentoring their Business

How do you find a mentor and why do you need one? In a three-part series, we look at different kinds of mentoring relationships students can seek out. Some are more formal while others grow through time, but all mentorships have benefits for students in the classroom, in their career and beyond. This is the third story in the series. The first story looked at the student-professor mentoring relationship. The second story explored guidance student peers can provide.

UNIVERSITY PARK — Although its program is only 4 years old, Penn State’s Smeal College of Business is at the forefront of quality mentoring programs in the United States.

Jennifer Eury, honor and integrity director for the Smeal College of Business, has worked with the college’s mentoring program since its inception in 2009 to create an opportunity for students and alumni to engage with each other on an ongoing basis.

Since that time, Smeal College of Business alumni have been more than willing to contribute to the program. “One of the primary reasons that alumni seek out the college is to get involved and, most important, to connect with students,” Eury said. “They want to give career advice to students. They want to meet with students.”

The program does just that. Rising sophomores, juniors and seniors are invited to apply during the spring semester. Applicants submit a resume, short essay and reference. Alumni interested in becoming a mentor apply online and submit a resume or bio.

“One of the primary reasons that alumni seek out the college is to get involved and, most important, to connect with students. They want to give career advice to students.”

— Jennifer Eury, honor and integrity director,
Smeal College of Business

The Alumni Relations Office within Smeal makes the matches by hand based on major preference, industry, years out of college and geographic preference, as well as qualitative data such as hobbies and plans after graduation. “We want to provide as many students as we can with a mentor. We don’t want to turn students away,” Eury said.

Students who are matched with a mentor are called proteges, not mentees. The word evokes more of a sense of commitment to the relationship, Eury said. During the previous year, 150 proteges were accepted into the program.

Only serious students are considered. Proteges must be self-motivated to keep the mentoring relationship in good standing, as proteges and mentors are encouraged to connect at least once a month to discuss timely and realistic goals, Eury said.

Some mentors schedule monthly meetings with their proteges and prepare an agenda. Other pairs text informally. “No one way is better than the other,” she said. “It’s just about how the relationship works.”

In her experience, Eury has found that the best relationships are matched based on major and industry with people who are dedicated to communicating with their protege or mentor. “We really believe our mentoring program is providing meaningful and relevant relationships for both parties involved,” Eury said.

The biggest benefit of participating in the Smeal College of Business Mentoring Program is gaining a “personal board of directors,” Eury said, adding that a connection with a professional in the field that a student wishes to pursue is invaluable.

Eury suggests that proteges strive to construct an open and straightforward relationship with their mentors. “It’s about developing a relationship that is built on trust and communication and honesty, and eventually perhaps the alum may open their network for you,” she said.

Proteges and mentors are officially matched through the program for one academic year. A protege will be matched with another mentor if he continues to be in the program. “During all points of a student’s academic journey, a student could have a mentor,” Eury said. “Our hope is that the relationship goes beyond a year, that the relationship continues.”

University-wide assistance

Mentoring programs are no stranger to universities and colleges. Many times, undergraduate students are paired with an upper-level student, a professor or an alumnus of their school to learn the ropes of being a college student and establishing a career. These programs have proven benefits for students, including academic and social support and role modeling. Undergraduate mentoring programs also provide students with valuable goal-setting and career path guidance.

With more than 175,000 members, Penn State has the largest dues-paying alumni organization in the world, and the University is one of many higher education institutions that has focused on the importance of career planning and implementing alumni mentoring programs to prepare students for life after graduation.

Alumni are able to help students explore their work options, make initial career decisions, network and find jobs, according to “The role of the alumni association in student life,” written by researchers Tara Singer and Aaron Hughey in the New Direction for Student Services journal. They cite Penn State’s LionLink networking program, co-sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association and Student Affairs, as an example of a successful higher education program. The program matches students and volunteer alumni mentors, known as “career coaches.” The pairing service is also available to Penn State alumni who are looking for a mentor.

How do I find a mentor? The Penn State Alumni Association offers many programs to help students connect with alumni. Here are five tips to get you started.

Students at Penn State have access to a wide variety of other mentor programs, too. Most programs specialize in a student’s academic discipline. Alumni mentoring programs can be found across colleges and campuses and campus programs, including in the Schreyer Honors College, the College of The Liberal Arts, the College of Health and Human Development, theDepartment of Biology, at Penn State Berks and through Penn State Alumni Association programs such as FastStart and Penn State’s Pride, an online alumni directory.

Paying it forward

Eric Grady, a junior majoring in management information systems, is a protege in the Smeal College of Business program. He and his mentor, Matt Hilldoerfer, a manager at Accenture in the sales support and solution configuration group in Baltimore, have been connected since fall 2013, and Grady did not waste any time making the most of the relationship.

Hilldoerfer agreed to be a mentor to reconnect with his love of Penn State and to pay it forward. “When I was younger, I had two amazing mentors that helped me focus and accomplish some major milestones in my life,” Hilldoerfer said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without their guidance.”

During their first phone call, Grady and Hilldoerfer set goals for the program. “He wanted to help me develop professionally,” Grady said. “We set up a few mock interview and resume planning sessions that we could do down the road.”

Grady’s experience with his mentor has shaped his future career goals. In addition to general professional advice, Hilldoerfer recommended a few books to better Grady’s business acumen. “He helped me to see a few of the companies I want to look into down the road or some of the fields that I might be interested in,” Grady said.

Although Grady is learning from his mentor, Hilldoerfer insists that he benefits just as much. “I learn a lot from the students I mentor, especially to never lose the excitement of learning,” Hilldoerfer said.

Grady encourages other students to seek out a mentoring program like the one in his college to help them work toward their goals. “I definitely enjoy the program a lot. I feel like it’s a great resource for Smeal students, that they should all get involved with. It’s too valuable of a resource to pass up,” Grady said.

Hilldoerfer knows that the importance of a mentorship does not end after college. “The willingness to be able to share ideas and ask questions in a safe setting is a valuable experience at any age or level,” Hilldoerfer said.

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