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Student-mentor programs swell across the country

Mentor Gary George and Florence Liu, a student mentee, talk at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business event in Vancouver.

Beedie School of Business

When graduate business student Kar-On Lee wanted to know what it is like to work for a large corporation, she sought advice from her mentor, David Waterman, an HR learning and development consultant at software giant SAP Canada.

"He gave me a lot of insights I would not otherwise have known," says Ms. Lee, a part-time management of technology MBA student at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business. She has mostly worked in academia and is currently a learning technology specialist at the university's Teaching and Learning Centre, but wanted a perspective on the challenges of a job in a big company.

Through Mr. Waterman, she says, "I learned a lot about navigating around the politics of a large corporate entity."

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Their professional connection came through a Beedie-run program that has recorded a six-fold increase in student-mentor pairings – now 184 in total – since its inception in 2011. Beedie's Mentors in Business is one illustration of the evolution of business school mentorship programs over the past five years, fueled by rising student demand and industry interest.

At the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, assistant dean of external relations Alain Doucet views mentoring as a "two-sided" proposition: "The students value it enormously and I have repeatedly heard from graduates, alumni and members of the community who participate as mentors and feel they get as much out of it as the students do."

One of Telfer's mentorship programs that matches top senior undergraduates with industry advisors now is capped at 50 pairings a year from 16 five years ago. Over this time, the school also has expanded its mentoring options, with one program tailored for undergraduates studying capital markets and another for foreign students eager to work in Canada after graduation. The MBA mentorship program has tripled in size to 15 student-industry pairings a year since 2012, with a new mentoring option for PhD business students seeking careers in industry to be offered this fall.

"It's all part of our commitment to a complete student experience," says Mr. Doucet. "The market tells us they value well-rounded students who have not just classroom learning but experiential and real-life skills and are as market-ready as we can make them."

Mentoring programs vary by school but share similar guidelines: student and mentor typically meet, ideally face-to-face, at regular intervals through the school year; the student is responsible for managing the agenda; and students are expected to seek advice, not jobs, from their mentors.

"The aim is not placement," says Marie-José Beaudin, executive director of the Soutar Career Centre at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management. Instead, the goal is to equip students with career-long skills in networking.

"Your career can't evolve in a silo," she says. "You need to have champions who support that and mentors can be fantastic."

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As at other schools, mentoring has undergone a significant evolution at Desautels. Its MBA mentorship program began 10 years ago as an initiative of the MBA Women's Association but now is available to male students as well. Three years ago, the school added an online platform to promote informal mentoring for students to learn about an industry from alumni already in the field.

"We have so many students emigrating to Canada [Desautels MBA class is more than 70 per cent from abroad] and they have no network [here] to speak of," says Ms. Beaudin. "They are still looking to see what the opportunities [in Canada] could look like to them."

More than 400 Desautels alumni have joined the online platform, up from about 150 five years ago, she says.

At Beedie, Mr. Waterman is a five-time mentor and a strong advocate for industry leaders to share time and expertise with students.

"Mentoring is a two-way street and it is really rewarding," he says. "I like that satisfaction of being able to help other people grow and achieve their goals." As important is the value of relationship to the mentor. "It helps you stay relevant and keep in touch with what is happening," he says, adding "you can also learn from the mentees."

Pairing students and mentors is "a very complex matching process," says Paulette Sangalang, manager of employment engagement at Beedie, but cites a 95-per-cent success rate. "At the end of the day it is about the relationship built through time and not just the qualifications of the mentees and mentors," she says. "It depends on how they grow the relationship through the six months of the program."

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Beedie holds an opening and closing networking event, with a session midway through the program to check on the progress of the relationships. In a recent signal of the program's importance to the school, dean Ali Dastmalchian met over breakfast to hear from mentors about their experiences.

As schools increasingly embed mentoring into the overall student experience, new features are being added to promote a successful relationship.

At the University of Alberta's School of Business, industry executives (mostly alumni) attend annual workshop training on how to "Be a Better Mentor."

"If you just match people and that's it, then nothing happens; it sits in limbo," says Brent Collingwood, the school's director of alumni and corporate relations. "We have taken a lot more pro-active approach to working with mentors to keep them engaged and working through it."

In addition to one-on-one sessions, mentors are encouraged to invite students to association meetings and other gatherings to help them build professional networks.

As elsewhere, U of A business students receive coaching on how to work with a mentor and develop networking skills for their future career.

"There was always a [student] misperception that if I have the highest grades and the technical skills that the [career] roadway simply opens up to me," says Mr. Collingwood. "We spend a lot of time coaching on the soft-skill element as opposed to the purely technical skills. You need the combination of the two."

jlewington@bell.net

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