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Two models of mentorship

Toward the beginning of this academic year, Shawon Jackson sent out an email to the class of 2017 asking if they would like to participate in the Princeton Women’s Mentorship Program, now entering its third year. Students who joined had the option of “pod” or “general” membership. Those in the first category were sorted into small groups made up of one representative from each class year. General members receive emails that invite them to leadership events, but do not commit to weekly pod meetings.

The idea for the pods is to meet once a week in a social capacity and develop strong relationships with other pod members that allow for mutual mentorship. Additionally, each pod is assigned a faculty member or administrator to meet with at least once a semester.


This initiative is the brainchild of undergraduate women on campus in response to the 2011 Steering CommitteeReport on Women’s Leadership. The most directly relevant observation made by the report is that women, “perhaps even more than men,” are influenced by mentors in terms of academic and extracurricular achievement. Anecdotal evidence from faculty and students indicates that mentorship plays an important role in women’s decisions to pursue leadership positions and scholarships, but this mentorship can be difficult for women to access (possibly more so than for their male peers). The report contains another finding that is equally important for understanding the direction the mentorship program has taken. In a survey on freshman orientation, 77 percent of respondents felt that they lacked sufficient opportunities to make connections with upperclassmen. The choice to create inter-class pods is a clear response to this concern.

Given that opportunities to meet upperclassmen are limited, the pod provides a structured environment for members of different years to bond. Caroline Kitchener ’14, one of the founders and current co-presidents of the mentorship initiative, asserted, “Those relationships are really the point of the program.” The intimate group setting allows freshman women to comfortably interact with older peers who can, as Kitchener puts it, “help you understand what’s going on in this place.” In the most successful situations, students keep in touch with their pod members even after some of them have graduated.

Peer mentorship, however, is only half the story. The Steering Committee Report focuses on the positive effect that faculty can have on women’s decisions to apply for scholarships or leadership positions. While pods are set up with a “Pod Partner” — a Princeton faculty or staff member — these individuals are only required to meet with the group once a semester. The meeting requirement is relatively lax in order to accommodate the full schedules of the staff and faculty members involved. Of course, Princeton students are busy as well, which can lead to dysfunctional pod groups that don’t meet. This has been effectively addressed in the past by creating general membership, which weeds out students who are interested in the program but don’t have enough time for weekly meetings. Other tactics for ensuring commitment include introducing accountability and investment by assigning a “pod captain” and sponsoring restaurant meals for pods that do meet frequently. Through restructuring the program and offering incentives, WMP has managed to make the time commitment worthwhile for students. The program should now focus on how to accomplish the same thing for faculty.

The program focuses more on developing relationships between students of different classes than on those between students and faculty. While having a junior or senior friend may enhance an underclassman’s social life, that friendship may never reach the stage of mentorship. In contrast, a relationship developed with a professor is rarely just a friendship. Teachers have the power to change the way students see themselves. Making a connection with an adult who has “made it” — someone in a high-profile position of success and authority — cannot be compared with the connections we make with our peers. Both are critical for students’ social and academic development on campus, but in terms of mentorship, a relationship with a faculty member is much more effective than one with another student.

The Women’s Mentorship Program is an earnest attempt to provide women with a strong inter-class network, but it is an imperfect answer to the leadership disparity pointed out in the Steering Committee Report. While the program offers several lectures and workshops on leadership throughout the year, the main focus is on the pods. Isabella Lloyd-Damnjanovic ’17, a current participant in the program and a staff copy editor for The Daily Princetonian, said that she thinks about her fellow pod members “more as guides to Princeton social or academic life than mentors.” This distinction is something Rebecca Kreutter pointed out in her column last Wednesday: Advisors are not necessarily mentors. Mentorship evokes admiration and guidance, a stronger role and greater influence than someone who dispenses helpful advice.

In order to create the kind of mentorship that the Steering Report indicated is necessary, faculty and staff partners in the program should be required to meet with their pods more than once a semester. One-on-one meetings between the students of a pod and their partner would build stronger relationships and might raise the faculty member’s personal investment in the group as a whole. Some of the workshops should include the staff partners in order to build mentorship ties that go beyond the student members of pods.


The way that the Women’s Mentorship Program tackles the lack of social connections between students of different class years is an important step towards ameliorating the upper-underclassmen divide created by eating club culture. The problem of faculty mentorship remains on the table, and with certain changes of programming and prioritization, the Women’s Mentorship Program could be pivotal in closing the gap.

Tehila Wenger is a politics major from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at Katherine Zhao is a freshman from East Brunswick, N.J. She can be reached at

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