Helping Undergrads Find a Mentor

By Hannah Eagleson

I remember kneeling in the woods one fall day during graduate school, afraid. The reds and oranges around me were stunning, but I was more aware of my knees on the ground and of the growing disquiet I felt. I was afraid because things like the resurrection of Christ seemed hazier and hazier to me as I got busier and busier. Life seemed a blur of classes, papers, and four-hour nights. I read Scripture each morning, but found it hard to concentrate because there was always another deadline pressing.

I longed for a mentor who could advise me on living faithfully in busy times and integrating faith well with my subject. That longing affects undergrads just as much as grad students, something I saw as a teaching assistant. InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) eventually helped me to find a community of believing academics, and along the way I learned some things about finding mentors. I hope you can use these ideas as you work with students this fall.

Finding Mentors as an Undergrad

Here are some tips for discovering and growing great mentoring relationships:

1. Pray for good mentors.

I was looking for someone who could mentor me in creative writing. I was an English major, but my undergraduate school didn’t really focus on creative writing, so I didn’t know where to look. Feeling lost, I prayed about it. Not too long after that, I went to a job interview. The interviewer noticed on my resume that I was interested in writing, and he mentioned that his wife was a poet. In time, I began studying poetry with her. Her advice transformed my style and convinced me to write poetry, something I’d always been afraid to do. A decade later, I still write poetry, and I still learn incredible things from the friend God sent me when I prayed for a mentor.

2. Turn up to office hours.

This sounds obvious, but it amazed me as a teaching assistant how few people came to office hours. I know it can feel as though you’re interrupting when you go to a prof’s office, but I was really happy when students did come. I wanted to get to know members of my classes as people, not just as names on the roster. I also wanted to help with individual questions and difficulties, which is easier to do during office hours than in hurried conversations before or after class (though I certainly understand that not everyone can make the schedule work to attend office hours).

3. Find ways to work with potential mentors.

Shared work is a great way to get to know potential mentors. Volunteering for events in your department may let you find and engage with mentor figures you admire.

Some departments also have undergraduate research programs, where a few undergraduates can work on a research project with a faculty member. Faculty members who sign up to work on these typically want to mentor students, so it’s another opportunity to meet mentors.

4. Accept the gift of time.

As a younger student, I tended to worry that I was taking up a professor’s time if I stopped in the hall to have a conversation or sent an email. It is true that professors are busy, and it’s important to respect their time. But I also found that many of my professors really enjoyed thoughtful conversations with students; in fact, such conversations were often one of the biggest reasons they went into teaching.

With most instructors, you can indicate your willingness to respect their time with a sentence or two at the beginning of an email or a conversation. Once that’s established, profs will usually tell you if they have time at a particular point or not. If they do, you can enjoy the conversation. If they don’t, you can try again at some other point. As I learned to balance respecting time with accepting the generosity of my professors, better relationships emerged and I learned a lot from my instructors.

5. Check Out ESN’s Blog

We have a number of resources on mentoring at the ESN blog, and we’re exploring ways to provide more mentoring opportunities. Some starting points:

And we’d always love to hear from you at ESN, on mentoring or whatever else you might like to share.


Article Adapted from ESN Blog Posts:

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Hannah Eagleson is a writer/editor on staff with InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). In 2014-2015 she gave significant attention to the launch of Scholar's Compass: a devotional for academics, by academics (Emerging Scholars Network Blog). Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature, and she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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