Joi Mondisa

Strategies to help support students during a pandemic

Mentoring in the time of COVID-19.

Written By Joi-Lynn Mondisa, Assistant Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering

During a time of unprecedented uncertainty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, students need a higher level of support and guidance. As educators, we must identify how to mentor effectively in this current state. Mentoring is a process in which an experienced individual provides career support functions like career guidance, skill development and sponsorship, as well as psychosocial support functions like psychological and emotional support and role modeling.

The pandemic brings an added layer of mentoring challenges, especially as mentoring relationships may have shifted to becoming virtual or completely non-existent. In addition, mentors and mentees may have to build or maintain relationships with little or no in-person contact in addition to the stress of navigating stressful and unfamiliar teaching or learning environments (i.e., remote classes, online meetings, etc.). Therefore, we must first understand the current challenges to mentoring as related to the pandemic and how mentors can leverage their assets and strategies to effectively mentor students in this temporary situation.

Mentoring, social capital, and strategies

Effective mentors use their social capital to help and support their mentees. Social capital is founded on the trust that mentors and mentees cultivate with each other. Mentors’ trust, receptivity and approachability allow them to provide mentees access to their social capital elements (i.e., access to networks and academic resources, ability to provide support and professional development skills and resources).

Using what we know about effective mentoring, we propose the following possible actionable tips or mentoring strategies to use during COVID:

 Strategy #1: Provide access to academic resources: In the current pandemic, students need interaction with faculty and peers to stay connected and to build community. Students have no or restricted physical access to academic, educational and professional resources like mentors and support people. In addition, students may have restricted internet access. Therefore, mentors can:

  1. Hold monthly phone or virtual check-ins with mentees and graduate research groups focused on reviewing available resources and network connections
  2. Utilize social media apps like Zoom, Slack, WhatsApp and Facebook to maintain open communication about topics/questions
  3. Host informal, virtual gatherings like game nights and coffee breaks

 Strategy #2: Provide support and empathy: Mentors should continue mentoring and offering support and empathy by leveraging their faculty-student and peer-to-peer mentoring relationships. Faculty are not able to provide career and psychosocial support in person, but they can still mentor and advise students via teleconferencing and electronic communication. However, virtual and electronic communications may lack the intimacy of in-person mentoring. Also, mentors and mentees may be unable to read non-verbal communications. Likewise, virtual communication may tend to limit conversation to pertinent questions at hand. Mentors might consider the following ways to bridge the gap:

  1.     For classes, faculty can provide orchestrated interactions through online management software systems like discussion threads and Zoom breakout rooms
  2.     Use social media mechanisms to bring students in contact with other students to leverage peer-to-peer mentoring
  3.     Promote the creation of online shared-interest affinity group meetings

 Strategy #3: Grow trust and rapport, role model and teach self-advocacy: Despite the lack of personal interaction during the pandemic, students still need continued growth and development as well as a sense of professional belonging, professional identity and professional development. Mentors can:

  1.     Provide access to yourselves as well as other role models like industry sponsors and speakers
  2.     Conduct conversations and tips about how to self-advocate; work with students to help them be comfortable with voicing their needs and identifying resources
  3.     Host virtual lunch and learns and seminars with industry sponsors and advisory board members with Zoom breakout rooms for individual interview sessions

In sum, the basic principles of mentoring–like career guidance, skill development, sponsorship, psychological and emotional support and role modeling–have not changed. But the current situation requires us to adjust the process of how we mentor.  During this time of uncertainty, it has never been more important to effectively mentor students. For undergraduate and graduate students, these are pivotal moments in their lives and mentors’ efforts can have a long-lasting impact on their futures.

Some elements of this article are adapted from “The Role of Social Capital in African American STEM Mentoring Relationships,” in the May 2020 issue of Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.

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