Written by Allison McWilliams, Ph.D., Director of the Mentoring Resource Center at Wake Forest University.
This past Sunday the National Governors Association announced that its agenda for this coming year will focus on higher education – both college preparation and college completion. This announcement was made in part in reaction to a recent report released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce; the report notes that by 2018 there will be jobs for 22 million new workers with college degrees, but not enough employees with those degrees to fill them. The report’s authors argue that we must do a better job of preparing students for careers from the time that they enter postsecondary education, if not before.
All of this would seem like potential good news for a school like Wake Forest, with its strong academic standards and graduation rates. But these announcements also come in the wake of recent high-profile news articles questioning the value of higher education, particularly in light of increasing costs that would seem to put postsecondary education out of the reach of many while not preparing those who can afford it for “real world” employment. So how do we make sure that we are preparing students for productive engagement with the world? Clearly, a solid foundation of education matters. Support and resources offered through career development matters. And, I would argue, mentoring matters.
Student development is no longer a responsibility left solely to institutions of education. In a world of recession, environmental catastrophes, war, and global interconnectedness, it is incumbent upon all of us – educators, family members, community members – to help prepare this generation for the world that they are entering, and for the new world of work. Today’s students are by no means guaranteed a job after graduation, let alone an interview. As Mark L. Savickas notes in the foreword to The Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring (2010), “Today we rarely view careers as unfolding or developing in a hierarchical corporation. Instead, we talk about managing transitions and constructing careers…. In an uncertain world, workers must construct certainty within the self and then attach themselves to significant others who can assist them to adapt to the series of tasks, transitions, and traumas that they will encounter” (p. xviii).
The period of young adulthood, that vaguely-defined time between childhood and adulthood that coincides with the age people traditionally go to college, is a time for coming into one’s own, discovering who you are and what you believe in, forming opinions and discovering meaning in life. It is a time of transition, says Sharon Daloz Parks in her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams (2000), transition that “occurs most gracefully and with optimum potential when the emerging self is recognized and invited into a wider arena for participation by wise and trusted adults. Thus, this is the fitting time for the presence of mentors” (p. 80). Indeed, says Daloz Parks, “the power of mentoring relationships is that they help anchor the vision of the potential self” (p. 81).
Think about that: mentors help anchor the vision of the potential self. Mentors provide a safe harbor in the midst of so much change and uncertainty. Mentors provide wisdom, and guidance that can only result from lived experience. Mentors encourage risk-taking, and help mentees articulate a vision for who it is they will become and then help them set goals and develop a path to get there. Mentors provide accountability. The promise of mentoring, says Walter C. Wright in Mentoring: The Promise of Relational Leadership (2004) “is the hope of the future.” It is nothing less than that. And as we assess the value of what we are doing to prepare young people for their futures, that is why mentoring matters.