Chapter 8: The Importance of Mentorship in Higher Education

by Dr. Nido R. Qubein

Posted on March 07, 2018

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At High Point University (HPU), we believe in what I call "intentional congruence," an idea that describes how what we do and what we espouse connect like pieces to a puzzle and helps us plant seeds of greatness in the hearts, minds, and souls of our students.

One of those critical pieces is this: every college student needs heroes, models, and mentors to help them learn about life and understand that they enter the hallowed hallways to learn and exit the hallowed hallways to serve.

Our team on campus embodies that philosophy, particularly our success coaches. They anchor our front lines of student engagement and help first-year students and sophomores navigate the academic and social challenges that often come with college.

Caroline Tucker was one of those students.

Coaching for Success
As a freshman four years ago, Tucker saw success coach Britt Carl every two weeks. Their 10-minute meetings turned into hour-long discussions, and every time, Carl helped Tucker handle the academic confusion of being a physics major and the stress of coming from a successful family that set high expectations.

Both her parents were college graduates; her dad was a corporate attorney. She was adopted from China at nine months old, and growing up in Arlington, Virginia, as the youngest of two, she knew nothing but success.

Then, she came to High Point University, and for the first time, wrestled with failure. Carl helped Tucker change majors – a move, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, that is carried out by 80 percent of all college students nationwide.

But Carl also helped Tucker find her passion, adapt to campus life, and excel in her own right. In May, Tucker graduated with a degree in international business. Today, she works as an area manager for Amazon.

Carl, Tucker says, helped make that happen.

"She told me, 'You're worth it. You can go a long way. Just breathe,'" Tucker says today. "That meant so much."

Let those words sink in for a minute: "You're worth it." Those three words helped change the trajectory of Tucker's life. That kind of support can change the trajectory of every student if we, as the academy, put forth the effort.

Building Distinction
At High Point University, we believe in the power of mentorship because it helps students become who they want to be. That longtime commitment has helped us tremendously. Our latest research shows that 95 percent of our graduates have a job or are enrolled in graduate school within six months after receiving their diploma.

At High Point University, we believe in the power of mentorship because it helps students become who they want to be.  

It backs up what I tell our students: show me a successful individual, and I'll show you someone who has had real positive influences in his or her life.

Our success hasn't happened by chance. We know what makes us distinctive, and we infuse our pedagogy with an emphasis on service, experiential learning, entrepreneurship, and a growth mindset. We build our brand around that and position ourselves for a specific college-age population by showing students and their families at every turn that we care deeply about what and how they feel.

We also see the groundbreaking research from Mark Murphy, a renowned expert on leadership and employee engagement, as our North Star. Murphy's research shows the top five reasons why new hires fail. Coachability is number one, followed by emotional intelligence, motivation, temperament, and technical competence. We help our students hone these skills so they can differentiate themselves in a competitive, global marketplace.

We in the academy know what parents want. They want some guarantee that their child's future will shine bright after graduation, and when they ask, "Will my kid get a job? Will my kid get into graduate school?", we need to answer with a resounding "Yes."

In the book, Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education, Jon McGee writes: "Colleges and university leaders can talk about learning value to their heart's content, but if we cannot address economic concerns in a compelling way – which does not require promises or guarantees but does require a commitment to understanding what happens to our students after they graduate – we risk losing the argument altogether."

Our world is becoming more technologically advanced and more competitive with each passing day, and our graduates are not just competing against someone from California. They're competing against someone on the other side of the world, and we need to prepare them for the world as it is going to be.

Attracting Generation Z
We all know students can go elsewhere for what they believe is a more affordable education. They can enroll in a community college, take online college courses or log onto Google, YouTube, you name it, to find what they need.

Plus, consider the generation we educate.

They are known as Generation Z. Born after 1995, these digital natives have unfettered access to technology and expect it everywhere. Research suggests they don't like lectures, a professor's go-to teaching tool. Research also suggests that they're confident, ambitious, self-reliant, and socially responsible. They want to make an impact in whatever they do, but they get impatient easily, are often risk-averse, and feel isolated, anxious, and stressed in a post-9/11 world.

We all need to be nimble enough to adapt to their changing needs as well as the changing needs of potential employers.  

To help them become who they want to be, we all need to be nimble enough to adapt to their changing needs as well as the changing needs of potential employers as seen through Mark Murphy's research. We have to make learning come alive for students and help them become entrepreneurial solution finders, tenacious enough to say yes to challenges that build self-confidence and help them grow.

We have to help students believe in the art of the possible, and we have to be the mentors who show them the way.

The Need to Differentiate
Think about what we hear today.

Some people are losing faith in higher education, and they see universities as being too bureaucratic, too tone deaf to parents, too afraid of change, and too expensive with no guarantee that a bright future will unfold for graduates.

Many offer that the purpose of a college education is to accumulate knowledge. But I also believe the purpose of what we do – and what we need to do – is to take 17- and 18-year-olds, interact, and guide them so by the age of 22, they have evolved, ready for life. College needs to be a place that prepares them for the world, but also changes them from within.

College needs to be a place that prepares them for the world, but also changes them from within.  

You can't get that anywhere else consistently other than on a college campus. Doing that only adds value to our role in an undergraduate's life. We become partners in their success. We change lives.

This year, nearly three million students will graduate from college, and every one of them will be looking for a job or a grad-school slot. We at HPU know that, and we want to make sure our graduates leave our campus enthusiastic about solving problems, thinking critically, communicating effectively, and viewing the world as one big classroom.

As I often tell our parents, we don't weed students out of the system; we weave them into our family. I believe that approach ensures a promising future for all of us, particularly after what I discovered in Jim Collins' book, How the Mighty Fall. What he wrote applies to companies and their future. But it also could apply to every university, every college in the land.

"It is possible to build a great institution that sustains exceptional performance for multiple decades, perhaps longer, even in the face of chaos, disruption, uncertainty, and violent change," Collins writes. "We are not imprisoned by our circumstances, our setbacks, our history, our mistakes, or even staggering defeats along the way. We are freed by our choices."

In the past 12 years at HPU, we have been freed by our choices. We have what I call "faithful courage."

Campus as a Coach
During the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression, we tripled the size of our faculty and our student enrollment, quadrupled the acreage of our campus, and expanded our number of academic departments from three to eight. We built or acquired 108 more buildings and created three doctoral programs as well as an academic niche that focused specifically on public health. Since 2005, we've raised more than $350 million and invested $2.1 billion into our campus, borrowing less than seven percent of our total investment.

As we worked to transform our university, people took notice. Our academic standing with U.S. News & World Report rose from 17th in 2004 to Number 1 regional college in the South for the past five years and Number 1 in innovation in our category for the past two years. And this year, Princeton Review named us one of the country's top institutions for undergraduate education.

Everything we've done centers on creating an environment that educates the mind and raises the spirit of every student. In essence, our campus becomes a coach.

Students walk past fountains meant to energize. They walk through 26 gardens and a tree-shaded promenade where they hear classical music meant to inform, read quotes meant to inspire and walk past historical sculptures meant to model true success.

Abe Lincoln to Rosa Parks. John Coltrane to Galileo. Mother Teresa to Beethoven. They all stand in still life on or near our promenade. It reminds me of what my mother used to tell me all the time when I was young: "If you want to be a great person, you have to walk side by side, hand in hand with great people."

That's where mentorship comes in. It's key to everything we do.

Mentorship: The Key Ingredient
Students find mentors when they study abroad and when they work side by side with professors in undergraduate research. They find mentors when they work with our success coaches as well as our advisors and peer mentors in HPU's Office of Career and Professional Development.

Students find mentors when they meet, listen to, and talk with some of the country's most renowned thought leaders who come to campus. Those leaders include Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Malcolm Gladwell, and Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter.

Students find a mentor when they meet with Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple and HPU's Innovator in Residence, and Marc Randolph, the co-founder of Netflix and HPU's Entrepreneur in Residence. Every semester, Wozniak and Randolph work with students on their ideas and projects, a partnership that stokes their curiosity and moves their heart.

Students also find mentors when they take classes with our faculty members, our enablers of learning. Our faculty come to us from some of the country's top institutions like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, and Duke.

Mentorship at High Point University is as crucial to us as our coursework.  

And students find a mentor in me. I teach a life-skills class to both first-year students and seniors, and I talk about my arrival in America as an immigrant at age 17 with $50 in my pocket. I came to attend college and chase a dream. I use my own life story, my 40 years in business and my three decades as a leadership speaker as a way to emphasize the importance of communication, attitude, mindset, and practical intelligence.

As you can see, mentorship at HPU is as crucial to us as our coursework. It should be crucial to all of us in the academy. It can help us convince a skeptical public that the work we do brings unmitigated value to our country because we can transform the lives of students and help them create a life of relevance, pregnant with possibility and framed by success and significance.

When they shine, our country shines. There is no greater gift.