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mentoring

As a senior going through the post-graduate job application process, I feel an overwhelming feeling of under-preparedness. And I’m not alone — this is common among my peers. After thinking I have been taking the right steps to set myself up for success, I constantly feel like I have no idea what I’m doing and am not doing enough for post-graduation plans.

Princeton boasts a slew of adviser and mentor resources to incoming students. From peer academic advisers to residential college advisers to University academic advisers, Princeton assigns both older students and professionals to first-years in an effort to help guide their experience from the minute they set foot on campus. Yet, most students find their most impactful mentorship experiences only once they’ve met older students in a group or club, rather than in these assigned advisers. Even so, many first-year students do not have the opportunity to interact on a personal level with older students until their sophomore or even junior years. Princeton needs a new structured mentoring program based on shared interests and passions rather than random matching.

Princeton’s model has the benefit of efficiently and conveniently matching first-year students to advisers by selecting on superficial terms — the major you preferred when you applied, the area you live in, your residential college. While this system provides advising quickly, it usually fails to build meaningful relationships, ones in which students seek out this mentor for advice — career and academic — throughout their Princeton experience. While older peer advisers have always offered support and an open door, it is rare for a random match between students to align interests and goals in a way that the older student has relevant experience to offer specific tips to younger students.

My most impactful mentors have been ones that were mutually selected and our relationship grew over time. For example, an older student I met on a team freshman year helped me through internship applications, course selection, and work-life balance for three years until she graduated. She was not assigned and she was in no way official, but the fact that we shared interests allowed her to point me in helpful directions based on her own trials.

Similarly, the adult mentors I have found most helpful are those founded in mutual enthusiasm and shared academic interests. Compared to my University assigned advisers, my self-selected thesis advisers show interest and care for my work and my passions, building a mentor relationship on trust and respect. Because University advisers are often assigned many students, most peers I’ve spoken to do not have a relationship with this person beyond signing paperwork. My classmate, a senior in the Wilson School, told me that she had never even met her department adviser face-to-face; all their communication took place over email.

Career Services offers one-on-one appointments, but from my experience using this resource, a 30-minute appointment (scheduled two weeks in advance) does not provide the guidance I was hoping for. While the advisers have been quite helpful in editing résumés or cover letters, they have been less impactful with more abstract questions — what should I do next year? Should I consider graduate school? What job opportunities might I consider given my skill set? A short one-time appointment does not give the adviser the tools to understand your passions, interests, strengths, weaknesses, and goals in a manner deep enough to offer insightful guidance.

In this way, effective mentorship demands more organic roots than a random match. In a mentor, we seek someone who takes a personal interest in us and our goals. The best mentors have experience with the specific choices we’re facing — whether it is understanding course requirements or internship opportunities or certain career paths — and can speak from their own trials and failures and those of their peers. And even further, it’s about knowing you and your abilities and aspirations and passions. Older Princeton students fill this role perfectly, but incoming students often do not interact or connect with older students on a personal level until later in their time at Princeton. While some clubs and extracurriculars provide opportunities to meet a mentor, many are less personal or involved and thus do not create this dynamic

I imagine a mentorship system between first-years and juniors — an optional University-wide big/little sibling program. The matching process could begin in the spring semester so that the younger student has some understanding of their academic and career interests and preferences. Mentors could be incentivized in various ways – a stipend for meals with their mentee or even pay per mentee. The process could involve meet and greets to select a mentor, and a highly personalized survey for students who do not meet a match in person. The survey would seek to match students based on major (or a few options first-years are considering) and perhaps early-career interests. While this matching would not be perfect, it would offer a structured mentorship program early in the Princeton experience with more substance than a random assignment. It would provide a better one-to-one experience, rather than a lopsided ratio of a single academic mentor for an entire group of students. Furthermore, the process would encourage more intimate relationships that continue for two years or even after the big sibling graduates, rather than ending after the course selection sheet has been signed.

Looking back on my Princeton experience, there is so much I wish I had known. I wish I had known what classes to take and when to take different requirements. I wish I had understood how to seek out internships and think in the long term what would be beneficial to do each summer. I wish I had a better map of the options and opportunities out there. Princeton goes to great lengths to assure students have a network of guidance and support, and these efforts are so appreciated. But the University can do more to offer more personalized mentorship, cultivating tailored advice and a meaningful relationship between older and younger students.

Jessica Nyquist is a senior concentrator in computer science from Houston, Texas. She can be reached at jnyquist@princeton.edu.

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