While mentors have an important role in helping to design studies and facilitating the intellectual development and independence of their students, they do so by playing a variety of different roles that go well beyond what's ordinarily expected of academics. In so doing, the mentor becomes the basic link between the student and the college.
Of course, mentors facilitate the learning of students in particular subject areas. They point students in useful directions in their search for resources, information, and academically substantive activities; they listen to students as they respond to the ideas of others and develop ideas of their own about what they are studying; and they provide ongoing feedback to students about their ideas, their written work, and their overall progress.
Mentors provide students with sufficient support and encouragement to persist despite complex life circumstances. Students sometimes have unrealistically high expectations and need assurance that their work is more than satisfactory. Similarly, when students have expectations that are too low, the mentor must encourage higher quality work.
Mentors assess the student's initial strengths and weaknesses and evaluate the students' academic achievements during a particular study. Mentors also learn to evaluate the amount of college-level learning students may have acquired from prior experience.
Mentors work collaboratively with students who range widely in terms of political conviction, profession, academic focus, wealth, success, personality, and purpose. Mentors must learn to work effectively with these differences and, by so doing, to encourage their students to do likewise.
Students seek help and direction in any number of areas: what course of study to pursue, how their curriculum should be focused, how to relate their studies to their professional lives, whether to seek financial aid, how to get into graduate school, why they have received a particular letter from an office in the college, what rules are pertinent for teacher certification, what they know from their experience. Much of a mentor's response is centered upon suggesting ways in which students can answer their own questions, although in some cases mentors will want to provide support, guidance, and in some cases direct answers.
Mentors deal with problems ranging from how to advise the student whose financial aid has been delayed, to how to enroll students for odd numbers of credits, to what to do when a tutor or evaluator loses touch with the student. Mentors deal with how to work with institutional regulations, how to make use of the flexibilities of the college to help a student do what he or she hopes to do, and how to make the college work for every possible student.
Mentors must keep track of all their students, monitor their own paperwork, and often provide the services of offices devoted to admissions, enrollment, financial aid, billing, academic affairs, records, prior learning assessment, and graduation. They may be asked to help recruit students, design programs for special audiences, administer workshops, develop student/alumni support groups, and so forth. Representing the college in this way is exciting and challenging, but it is also a rather substantial responsibility.
Because of our students' varied interests, mentors are always learning new subject areas, catching up in their own fields of expertise, seeking out new resources, attending conferences, learning new technologies and ways of meeting student needs, and reading, reading, reading. (New learning is as important to the life of a mentor as it is to the student!)
Empire State College mentors also work for a college (within an even larger institution) with a certain hierarchy, which means that as flexible as the college may be, individual mentors are responsible to administrators who have authority over them. While mentors are academic professionals who are expected to exercise responsible judgment on their own, they are also employees in a large and complex organization.
Mentors must also work with colleagues on college-wide and local committees, as a member of a center faculty, and in formal and informal collaboration in various aspects of academic tutoring and research. These mutually-supporting relationships are not only crucial in sustaining the academic strength and morale of the workplace, but they can often be as important to the well-being and satisfaction of mentors as their relationships with students.
Most (if not all) mentors are connected to areas of academic scholarship that may or may not be of interest to their students or shared by other colleagues in the college. To pursue these interests mentors must be creative and resourceful in allocating the time to their scholarly pursuits and community involvements.