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Changing Grinnell, take one: Alumni mentors

Topics/tags: Grinnell, marketing, alumni

In a recent musing, I noted that it is difficult to market Grinnell to prospective students because many of the things that make Grinnell special don’t necessarily seem unique. Certainly, the individually advised curriculum is relatively unique [1] and we can talk about its centrality to the institution. And I really do believe that our culture empowers students more than most institutions. It’s not just self governance or student leadership of large organizations like [press]. It’s also the attitude that when students come up with an idea, there are people on campus who will find a way to support that idea [2].

Nonetheless, the many strengths of Grinnell (e.g., student initiative, student-faculty research, close student-faculty interactions, emphasis on the social good, a strong global component, a collaborative culture, innovative teaching) also appear to be strengths of our peer institutions. So why would someone choose Grinnell over, say, a seemingly comparable institution in a large city?

If we can’t just highlight our strengths, we probably have to distinguish ourselves in other ways. So how do we make Grinnell more unique?

Unfortunately, as I look at our three most recent major initiatives, only one of the three seems relatively unique. Research opportunities for all? I hear lots of our peers talk about research opportunities. The Institute for Global Engagement? The literature of many of our peers talks about how international they are. Do we do these really well and even better now that we have the initiatives? Yes. Can a prospective student tell that? Probably not. The other initiative is a donor-funded Career Communities project that groups students with advisors related to their likely career goals. That’s a new and useful idea at Grinnell. But, now that I think more about it, may also be somewhat common. Certainly, a health professions advisor is a common role.

In the earlier musing, I suggested that we consider making some changes to Grinnell. I do not envision changes that significantly affect the core values and strengths of the institution. I would not, for example, advocate the addition of a law school or business school. Nor would I advocate that we become a single-gender institution. However, I do think that the College can find new things to do that will (a) distinguish ourselves and (b) build upon our core strengths.

Of course, identifying appropriate and useful changes requires time, energy, and discussion. But I have a deadline to meet. So I’m going to follow my standard inclination of coming up with something relatively quickly and seeing where it goes.

Fortunately, it seems like I thought about this issue a month or so ago, so I have at least one idea to start with. There’s some background to how I came up with the idea in the first place. I had originally tried to incorporate the background in this musing, but it seems better to cover it in a future musing.

So, let’s turn to the idea: Grinnell should pair every student with an alumni mentor (or a team of alumni mentors) (or advisers).

One of Grinnell’s great strengths is a group of active and engaged alumni. Whenever we meet alums, Michelle tells me how impressed she is with the alumni network. I regularly hear from Grinnell alumni that they tend to bond with each other, even if they did not know each other at Grinnell. There’s something about having been at Grinnell that makes them more similar to each other or at least more inclined to be with each other. I’ve regularly seen Grinnellians on Plans provide helpful advice to each other. And I know that our alumni want to do more to help the College, or at least to help students at the College.

So let’s build on that strength. Let the alumni help students by serving as informal mentors or advisers. They can talk to students about navigating Grinnell’s academic world and social scene, about the pressures that many students face, about preparing for life after Grinnell, the power of exploring new areas outside core interests, and so on and so forth.

I don’t have all of the details worked out. But the basic idea is that we will gather a cadre of available alumni mentors. When a student enrolls at Grinnell, they will be assigned one of these alumni mentors, possibly based on shared interests or characteristics. The mentors would meet with the students via videoconference every other week to talk through whatever the student is thinking about (or perhaps things the mentor or the College suggest they talk about). They might also be available via email or Slack for quick questions.

I realize that there are a wide variety of people on campus who can provide similar advice. But I expect that it will feel different to have someone helping who is doing so as a volunteer and not because it’s part of their job. And it will feel different to get support from someone who has been through the bubble, as it were.

In some ways, this idea builds upon something we’re already doing. For most of my time at Grinnell, students had one primary academic adviser [3]. Now, most students also have an adviser from the Center for Careers, Life, and Service and an adviser from Student Affairs. I must admit that I bristled a bit at first when I heard that we were adding other advisers. I know that some of my colleagues worried that these other advisers might undermine the primary faculty advice. However, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve supported the idea. I’ve always relied on folks from across campus to help students; I sent students to CLS to talk about strategies for finding internships and to Academic Advising to help them think about better study strategies. Why not have someone who knows them well as a starting point for these kinds of issues?

If three kinds of advisers (academic, career, student life) are useful, wouldn’t a fourth also be useful? What do I see as benefits to this approach?

  • It gives students access to a different kind of advice. And, in many ways, advice from a sensible graduate can be heard differently than advice from a faculty member or staff member.
  • It gives alumni a chance to be more involved in the life of the College. I know that many of our alumni would like to have ways to give back that are more substantive than just money; mentorships provide a not-too-time-consuming way to be involved and to make a real difference [4].
  • It helps distinguish Grinnell. While we empower you to make your own decisions, we know that you will want to rely on advice from others in making those decisions. When you come to Grinnell, you will form a team of advisers and mentors. In addition to a faculty member who will guide you through your academic planning, you will be assigned a staff member from Careers, Life, and Service who will help you think about longer-term career planning, a staff member from Student Affairs who can help you develop a plan for navigating extracurriculars, and an alumni adviser who can serve as a sounding board [5,6].

What would we need to do to put this type of project into play? Certainly, we would need buy-in from across campus. Faculty would need to be willing to accept a bit less authority. CLS and Student Affairs would also need to accept that the alumni adviser might give different advice. But I’d hope that we’d generally play well together.

We’d also need an infrastructure to train and assess the alumni advisers. Certainly, I’d want all of them to have implicit bias training and Title IX training. But they’d also need a bit more guidance on how to guide. Those who had been away from campus longer might need to be updated on new things at Grinnell, such as the addition of a Statistics concentration and the status of Media Studies.

We’d probably need someone on campus to manage the endeavor, or need to free up a few staff members’ time to contribute to this program, or both.

We’d need to work out a host of details: How do we pair students and alumni? Do we have each alum advise only one student, or do we have alumni work with small cohorts of students? What happens when the pairing does not work well or a student’s interest change? Can students choose a new alumni adviser? If so, how?

As I noted at the beginning, I might also consider giving students access a team of alumni advisers/mentors, although that seems harder to coordinate.

That’s what I’ve got for the time being; it’s supposed to be a quick idea, not one that I’ve fully fleshed out. But the more I think about it, the more enamored I am of it. I’m considering floating the idea by CLS [7], Admissions [8], and Alumni Relations [9]. Perhaps I’ll see what my readers say first [10].

[1] Brown also has an individually advised curriculum. I know that a few other institutions do, too.

[2] Here’s one example. When I was touring schools with Middle Son, we heard many institutions brag about the startup weekends that they offered to their students. But those activities were driven from above. Grinnell’s Pioneer Weekend came from a bunch of students developing an idea which was then supported (financially and administratively) by the Wilson Center.

[3] Or two, or three, depending on how many majors and concentrations they declared.

[4] For the alumni reading this: externships are another cool and relatively easy way to give back!

[5] Yeah, it needs work. A lot of work.

[6] Imagine my surprise to discover that our new admissions site includes the following text:

With three advisers to cover every aspect of your experience, all driven to help you contribute and belong to our community, the moments for mentorship and support are limitless.

There’s even a separate page about the three advisers.

[7] I’m pretty sure that at least one member of CLS regularly reads my musings. I may contact that person.

[8] I’ve been told that a few folks in Admissions regularly read my musings. But I’m not sure who they are, so I may just contact the director of admissions.

[9] I have not heard that anyone from alumni relations reads my musings.

[10] Note: That was a prompt. What do you think about this idea?

Version 1.0 released 2018-05-13

Version 1.1 of 2018-05-13