Education

How to mentor and support grad students who are all online (opinion)

Effectively mentoring students online is hard. And given the increasing enrollments in online degree programs over the last decade, along with the number of students suddenly pushed online during the pandemic, university professors now face an unprecedented challenge: When you don’t see many of your students often in person, how do you develop supportive relationships with them and guide them to successfully finish their degrees and advance their careers?

While mentoring may take multiple forms in higher education, that challenge is especially prevalent in formal academic mentoring relationships, such as those that occur in thesis or dissertation advising and in directing a lab or a research group.

My department launched its first online accelerated master’s degree program in spring 2020, which coincided with the early days of the pandemic. This program grew quickly and enrolled more than 150 graduate students in just the first year. Soon I found myself chairing thesis committees and mentoring online students on a regular basis. The pressure and expectations were high, which forced me to start thinking about what mentoring really meant to me and how I would do it when my students lived across the country—and with everyone juggling the new normal of living with social distancing, lockdowns and ever-changing mask requirements.

Thinking back about my own graduate study, my favorite moments all included personal interactions with my two mentors. I remember having research meetings on my academic father’s shaded patio; the sunshine and breezes of a Midwest summer hugged me as I weeded out topics for a dissertation. I remember the conference hotel room where my academic mother would spend hours telling me how to deal with the systemic biases in academe that I would soon encounter as a faculty woman of color. Those spaces held memories of my tears and laughter as a graduate student, and I knew I wanted to create similar experiences for my own students. Even if I never meet them in person. Especially in the middle of a global pandemic.

Fast-forward 18 months later: the graduate students whom I mentor have delivered 21 local and 13 international conference presentations and won three prestigious awards from the university and a national honor society. And I have earned an Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from my institution.

My students and I are now collaborating on five journal articles and 13 conference proposals while preparing their applications to doctoral programs. If anything, the virtual and distant nature of our relationships has created distinct opportunities for sharing and connecting that would not be possible otherwise. Here is how I’ve done it and my recommendations for other faculty members who want to develop strong mentoring relationships.

Build an online community. Mentoring, first and foremost, is about creating an inclusive environment where students feel they belong. Most of my students are full-time working adults who try to squeeze in the time for their master’s degree at night and over weekends. While they appreciate the flexibility of our asynchronous online program, they also feel isolated and desire to be connected and involved with faculty, other students and the program in general.

With that in mind, I created an online community space for my mentees in the form of a Discord server, and we use it as our main communications channel. We share information about the thesis process, general resources, events and opportunities that can benefit students. Each student also has their own private channel on Discord to communicate with me, which becomes the way that we keep track of shared documents, questions and answers, meeting agendas, notes, and progress. What we all enjoy the most, though, is the social aspect of it. We commiserate and celebrate with one another. We share anything from motivational quotes to impressive nicknames to inspirational cornhole achievements. We cherish supermom moments with pictures of our children falling asleep in one arm and work on our research project in the other arm.

Connect with students holistically. The No. 1 goal of my personal mentoring practices is to lift students up and challenge them to reach new heights. I strongly believe in the motto of my undergraduate alma mater, “Having light, we pass it on to others.” My ultimate job as a mentor is not the passing of knowledge or skills but the passing of the light. I want to help my students find their own strengths and bring out the best of themselves so that, later on, they can also bring out the best in others. In scholarly terms, I help them foster their learning identity so that they can become lifelong learners.

I have noticed that my online students tend to have more reservations about their scholarly identities compared to traditional graduate students, perhaps due to their nontraditional pathways or the guilt that they cannot devote themselves completely to their scholastic pursuits. I constantly remind them of the hurdles they have already overcome to get here and assure them that they can also make the most of the challenges ahead—that they are capable of a lot more than they think. “If you can do better than that, why settle for the minimum?” I tell them.

I show them their progress by having check-in meetings with each student every week—most often in the form of a 30-minute Zoom call, but sometimes through just quick check-ins on Discord. In addition to content-specific discussions about their research, I also answer questions, clarify confusion, listen to their worries, give feedback, tell personal stories and do a myriad of other things. My students know that I am there for them, just one Discord message away.

Facilitate team-building and collaborative activities. Learning from peers is just as important as learning from professors—if not more so. By choosing to work with me, all my students have something in common, either topical or methodological. I help them make those connections, and I facilitate activities that would allow them to get to know one another and collaborate.

We hold monthly research group meetings and biweekly writing times. We give one another feedback on our writing and presentations. We have mock presentations for thesis defenses. We work together on conference and journal submissions. While I collaborate with them on their first few submissions or invite them to join mine, after some time, they started to take initiative and plan their own collaborations with one another. All of these are done online via Zoom and Discord.

By the time they graduate, my mentees all have quite a few items on their CVs that can help bolster their applications to doctoral programs. But above all, I think the best takeaway is their realization that my research group will always be their academic home, even after they graduate. My students will grow in their own directions and pursue their own passions, but the experience and connections that they share here may remain with them for as long as they find useful. It’s really a community of future scholars that I am developing and supporting.

Have fun and be authentic. Finally, people learn best when they are having fun. After all, we do this because we want to do it. I never romanticize life in academe, and often, I’m simply too overworked to put on a show. Instead, my mentees see me in my most authentic moments (e.g., having barely slept in days due to a sick kid and tough deadlines). They hear my complaints about evil Reviewer No. 2 and picky editors.

On tough days, I share motivational quotes to keep the gang going. We celebrate birthdays and backward hole-in-one cornhole throws. My students nicknamed me Mighty Mai T, and they still need to come up with a logo design for our research group T-shirts, because they are way better at memes and graphic design than I am.

When I know that they want to apply to highly ranked Ph.D. programs, I am frank and up front with them about the potential competition that they will face. I tell them, “I know you have already worked really hard to balance academics, life and work. But if this is your goal, you’ll need to work even harder to compete with those full-time students with more accomplishments on their CVs.” My students understand that academe is not all rainbows and unicorns, and they are ready.

If you are concerned about mentoring students online, don’t be. My online students have given me more than I’ve given them well before I ever meet them in person.

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