Papendorp ’17: True mentorship can’t be forced

Staff Columnist
Friday, October 28, 2016

It’s been a while since I’ve been on a college tour, but I’m guessing one of the few topics to come up as much as the treachery of walking backwards is academic advising. Brown is always sure to highlight the Meiklejohn Peer Advising Program, which pairs each first-year student with an older student and a faculty advisor. But when I think back on my years at Brown, the people who have supported and encouraged me most have been a haphazard mix of faculty members, friends, teaching assistants, coworkers and even strangers who did not necessarily need to advise me in a formal capacity.

Meiklejohns and faculty advisors are a great resource for questions about classes, extracurricular activities and navigating Brown’s campus. They can also help connect students to additional resources at Brown such as faculty office hours, the Curricular Resource Center, the Writing Center, CareerLAB and Counseling and Psychological Services. And if an authentic mentoring relationship or friendship does develop out of these pairings, so much the better. But from what I can tell, that would be an exception, not the rule. And there are many reasons why students might not feel comfortable raising more personal concerns in the context of structured advising.

One night when I was working at the pool, a swimmer asked me if I was liking my freshman year. I hesitated. I’ll never forget how he responded: “You know, it’s okay to say no.” Already, I felt much more comfortable opening up to this student than I had to my assigned advisors. Even though my academic advisor asked me the same question, it didn’t feel appropriate to talk about non-academic issues with someone I saw as an authority figure. It’s just awkward and feels forced to open up to someone in an artificial setting.

Also, simply by the nature of the size and scope of the Meiklejohn Peer Advising Program, advisors may not be able to understand the specific challenges facing the students they advise. For example, a professor advising a first-generation college student might not even realize how much their advisees do not know. And if the Meiklejohn Program specifically selects student advisors who are particularly enthusiastic about or successful at Brown, you can imagine that this would make it intimidating for first-years to feel validated admitting their struggles.

I don’t mean to discount the effort that students, professors and deans put into structured academic advising. These programs are a necessary support system that all students will need at some point. Last year, I was applying for a scholarship, and I realized at the last minute that I couldn’t think of anyone to edit my application essay. In this situation, the deans’ open office hours were invaluable: Though the dean on call seemed a little surprised to see me, he read through my essay, gave me a few suggestions and sent me on my way.

But two years ago, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to walk into University Hall. And if I had been grappling with a less straightforward issue than an essay, I know I would have balked at the idea of seeking help from a total stranger. Even though Brown’s academic advising programs can be helpful, they’re no substitute for meaningful, organic mentoring relationships. As writer and first-generation college student Jennine Capó Crucet writes in her essay, “Why first-generation students need mentors who get them,” “too many colleges still think of mentoring as just meetings between two people, one who knows some stuff and another who doesn’t yet know that stuff.” Building a support system at college takes time, and first-year advising programs help fill the gap in the meantime. But we shouldn’t let these artificial pairings stop us from recognizing the need for other mentoring relationships.

Students at Brown are lucky to have a variety of academic resources at their disposal. But the fact that these programs exist should not make us complacent about mentorship at Brown. We need to encourage first-years to put themselves in positions to meet people who can be true mentors to them, whether that means office hours, clubs, student employment, research or small classes. Pushing students to find real mentors is important not only to make sure that everyone at Brown feels supported but also because students will eventually need recommendation letters for summer opportunities, jobs or graduate school. Also, the ability to identify good mentors independently is crucial in the workplace and graduate school.

I’m grateful to my Meiklejohn and my assigned faculty advisor. But I’m more grateful to the professor who encouraged me to declare neuroscience during office hours; the coworker who told me that it’s okay to get a C (even in your concentration!); my research mentor, for taking time out of his work to help me with a tough homework assignment and to all the other students who have helped me out at one point or another. So if you’re a student, please think about how you can support your peers. Because I’ve realized how much help I’ve gotten from other students, when I see someone struggling I do my best to listen, ask questions and give my honest advice. Formal advising cannot recreate these moments of true mentorship. Even if you’re not one of Brown’s 350 Meiklejohns, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a mentor to someone else.

Carin Papendorp ’17 can be reached at

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