How Northwestern's Mentorship Program Goes Beyond Buzzwords

 Northwestern University mentorship program

Mentorship may be today's biggest buzzword in alumni relations and career services, and hundreds of schools across the globe are jumping on that bandwagon by implementing new mentorship programs.

But not every mentorship program is an automatic success.

We spoke to Laura Wayland, Executive Director of the Northwestern Alumni Association, about the steps Northwestern University has taken to ensure that its new mentorship program stands up to the hype. In the seven months since it launched, the Northwestern Alumni Association's program has led to hundreds of new relationships between students and alumni and alumni and alumni.

In our interview, Wayland explained how Northwestern is making its mentorship program a success.

WHY DID NORTHWESTERN DECIDE TO START A MENTORSHIP PROGRAM? 

In January 2016, the Northwestern Alumni Association (NAA) launched the Northwestern Network Mentorship Program, an easy-to-navigate, opt-in mentor program that both students and alumni could use throughout every stage of their career. Designed to foster engagement between alumni and students and provide a way for them to connect with Northwestern, the program offers many benefits. Alumni have the opportunity to share their talents and expertise, help students or fellow alumni realize their potential, and play an important role in shaping Northwestern’s next generation of leaders. Students receive valuable guidance on their careers, gain insights from industry leaders, and expand their professional networks. 

WHAT DOES NORTHWESTERN HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH FOR ITS STUDENT AND ALUMNI COMMUNITY WITH THE PROGRAM? 

The Northwestern alumni network is a powerful resource, and the NAA wants to make it accessible to students before and after they graduate and to alumni throughout their career, whether they are considering going to graduate school, reentering the workforce after having a family, seeking a career change, or looking for a peer-to-peer connection to help navigate their industry. Students and alumni should know that the Northwestern Network will be with them for the rest of their lives. 

WHAT ABOUT NORTHWESTERN’S PROGRAM SETS IT APART?

Northwestern’s mentorship program reflects our distinctive needs and character and is a little different than what you might find at other institutions. Specifically, there are three differentiators.

  1. The program includes the traditional model of student-to-alumni mentorship, but it also allows for alumni-to-alumni mentorship. This is not a typical feature of a mentor program, but it is important to our alumni that they have opportunities to network, share their professional knowledge and resources, and assist one another throughout their entire careers—not just when they are starting out. 
  2. The program is very flexible so that individual students and alumni can create the relationship or experience that works best for them. Through a user-friendly online platform, student or alumni mentees search for and request the mentor who best matches their career or personal interests. Mentors remain anonymous until the connection is accepted and then, together with the mentee, set the parameters of the relationship, including their objectives, how often to meet, and how they will communicate. 
  3. This platform allows other Northwestern mentorship programs to leverage the technology. For example, University departments can set their own criteria and requirements or send out invitations to a specific group, whether they want to connect current and former student-athletes, chemistry alumni, graduates from our medical school, or any other student or alumni group.  

AS YOU PASS THE SIX-MONTH MARK, WHAT SUCCESS HAVE YOU SEEN SO FAR? 

Students and alumni have embraced the mentorship program, which has grown exponentially since it was launched in January 2016. As of August 9, over 2,700 students and alumni have completed profiles with a total of 275 matches. Because our platform allows mentees to match with up to three mentors, a total of more than 400 users have been matched. Users include a diverse group of participants who represent 89 industries from 49 countries, so alumni and students from anywhere can and are participating in the program.

HOW DID YOU GET THESE RESULTS?

Starting small has been key to the program’s success. The pilot phase, which will continue until October, has also allowed the NAA to be flexible and adaptable. The program began with us reaching out to close alumni, such as alumni volunteers and board members, who activated their networks and provided a foundation of profiles in the database. The launch included small, segmented outreach to industry- and school-based student and alumni groups through email, social media, and peer-to-peer interactions. During this process, alumni, students, staff, and administrators provided feedback through focus groups and surveys that was used to change and improve the platform along the way. 

The mentorship program’s platform is both agile and customizable, and it has enabled us to scale quickly. Keeping the program small and manageable has helped to resolve issues and bugs in the system and connect people with small groups in a more personal way, resulting in steady growth since the program’s launch. 

We also spent a lot of time building campus partnerships—working with different schools and groups within Northwestern to make sure we communicated effectively and learned how they operate so we could help them use the platform to meet their needs. A close partnership with Northwestern’s Career Advancement office has been very beneficial, too. The office knows what students want and need and what kind of program is going to work for them. They sent emails to students about the mentorship program, and that has been essential to its success.

MENTORSHIP IS A BUZZWORD RIGHT NOW IN CAREER SERVICES, BUT MAKING MENTORSHIP PROGRAMS SUCCESSFUL IS A LOT OF WORK. WHAT SHOULD OTHER SCHOOLS CONSIDER BEFORE STARTING THEIR OWN PROGRAM? HOW CAN THEY GUARANTEE SUCCESS?

Any school launching a mentorship program should take time to answer a few questions first, such as: Why do you need a mentorship program? What are your alumni and students looking for? What need(s) are you going to address? What should a mentorship program look like for your school? What staff do you have and need to launch and maintain a mentorship program?

Another important consideration is to make sure you have the right vendor who will help you accomplish your goals. The NAA wanted a user-friendly, user-focused platform that would be able to scale to meet the needs of our students and alumni and feel personalized to Northwestern—but other schools will have other goals.

 

Read more about Northwestern's mentorship program on the CASE blog.