Mentoring Undergraduates as Professional Development for Graduate Students
By Marina Donnelly
Volume 46 Issue 4
By Marina Donnelly
Many graduate students in school psychology can identify at least one professional relationship that has influenced their academic careers. In a traditional sense, we often refer to the ongoing relationships that promote our professional growth as mentorship, where the more experienced individual serves as a mentor and the individual who benefits from the advice and guidance is the mentee. The encouraging and supportive voices of mentors guide mentees through exciting but often strenuous paths to their chosen careers. I recently received an e-mail from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) encouraging me to “launch [my] career with the support of a professional mentor” through the Find-a-Mentor Program. Moreover, the legal, ethical, and professional practice domain in the NASP Practice Model specifies mentoring as one example of professional practice (Skalski et al., 2015). Although serving as a mentor is not required for graduate students in school psychology, if interested, you can find or even create opportunities for mentoring experiences (Johnson, 2002). So, how can you go from being a mentee to becoming an effective mentor?
I came across this conundrum when I began seeking external funding during the second year of my doctoral program. During an application review session, a specialist suggested that I strengthen the section of my personal statement that focused on leadership by including mentorship experiences. As it turned out, it was common practice in some graduate programs at my institution to assign graduate mentors to undergraduate students participating in research labs; however, such experiences were not embedded in my program. Prior to graduate school, I was a nontraditional undergraduate student (first generation immigrant, first in my family to go to college, limited social support network, etc.). Despite having great general mentors, I felt blindfolded at every step I took in my academic and professional planning once I decided to go into school psychology. I thought of how much I could have benefited from the mentorship of a school psychology graduate student and decided to seek opportunities to serve as a mentor to undergraduates interested in school psychology. Now, after a year of mentoring experiences, I have identified the critical steps that helped me form productive mentoring relationships.
Step 1: Spreading the Word About School Psychology
First, cast a wide net. Your goal will be to share information about school psychology with potential mentees. Recruiting the next generation of school psychologists is, in and of itself, part of service to our profession. Part of the NASP Strategic Plan (2017) is addressing workforce shortages in our field and increasing representation of diverse school psychologists. As the populations we serve become more heterogeneous, the field of school psychology will benefit from culturally and linguistically diverse professionals to address the needs of all students. Recruiting undergraduates from diverse backgrounds is an important step in diversifying the field. Many of these students might not be familiar with school psychology or might have been misinformed about this profession, as it was in my case. As a potential mentor, you can take advantage of school psychology awareness activities to propose school psychology as an exciting career option to undergraduate students. For example, as the new vice president of our program's student organization, I reached out to psychology faculty teaching undergraduate courses and offered to conduct a brief presentation on school psychology as part of the School Psychology Awareness Week. The NASP website had prepared PowerPoint presentations that we could use. I was pleasantly surprised to receive interest from many faculty members; moreover, several had planned to have a class dedicated to “careers in psychology” and gladly accepted our contribution.
Step 2: Narrowing Your Focus
There are various methods to identify undergraduate students interested in school psychology mentorship. Collaborating with undergraduate students who participate in research groups is a common way of cultivating a mentoring relationship. If your program faculty do not engage undergraduate students in their research activities, consider starting a discussion about the potential benefits and ways of including undergraduates in ongoing projects. You also may be able to identify interested undergraduates if you have a teaching assistantship. Alternatively, you could ask your program's faculty who teach undergraduate courses if they have any students who might benefit from or be interested in mentorship. Finally, you might try reaching out to your institution's undergraduate honors program and provide your contact information to share with undergraduates interested in learning more about school psychology. Once you have done a wide range of outreach, narrow the focus to those who will truly benefit from your mentorship. Some potential mentees will contact you with a clear investment in this opportunity. However, you may need to be more proactive with other students. For example, I was able to collaborate with a specialized undergraduate program director at my institution to organize an information session for undergraduates interested in learning more about school psychology. In my experience, when mentees initiated the mentoring relationship, I found them to be more motivated to engage in all aspects of the process.
Step 3: Paying It Forward
Finally, begin developing your mentoring relationships. Your role should be defined based on the mentee's stage in their academic career and their specific goals. Here are some examples of how you may assist your mentee:
- Identify research, applied training experiences, or funding opportunities they were not aware of.
- Serve as a cheerleader or a sounding board during problem-solving stages of your mentee's experiences.
- Refer your mentee to institutional or professional organizations and services they might benefit from.
- Model professionalism and ethical behavior.
- Illustrate the importance of strong communication skills, hard work, and resourcefulness by strategically sharing specific experiences and examples from your own academic career.
- Utilize your own interpersonal skills to enhance the mentoring relationships: Use humor, show that you care, listen actively, be patient, and motivate your mentee to reach their goals.
After the mentoring relationships are established, your role will be to support your mentee(s) on their unique paths to a career in school psychology. An important rule of graduate student mentoring is to do no harm. Make sure to keep your advice general, and when referring to your own experiences, always emphasize that those do not represent universal truths. Be wise about what you choose to disclose. Listen to what your mentee wants and do not project your own agenda: It is their journey, and although you provide the advice, the ultimate decisions are always theirs to make. Do not exploit your mentees for personal or professional gains, make sure to avoid potential conflicts of interest, and have open conversations about roles and opportunities for collaboration. Always follow the ethical guidelines of our field and consult with more experienced individuals if faced with an ethical dilemma. If you are unsure how to best support your mentee, reach out to your own mentors, who will likely have valuable advice. Finally, although it might be tempting to serve as a mentor to everyone who seeks your advice, I would recommend focusing your efforts and not spreading yourself too thin. Self-care is crucial for one's long-term professional success, and you can model good self-care to your mentees by not taking on more than you can handle.
In sum, I decided to seek opportunities to mentor undergraduate students during the training stages of my school psychology career once I considered how much I, myself, benefited from the support of my mentors. From my experience, the mentoring relationships are likely to be more sustainable if you think of it as mutually advantageous. In my case, my mentees reported increased productivity and satisfaction with their experiences resulting from socioemotional and practical support I provided, and I experienced increased professional satisfaction and a sense of generativity.
Johnson, W. B. (2002). The intentional mentor: Strategies and guidelines for the practice of mentoring. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33(1), 88.
National Association of School Psychology. (2017). Strategic plan: 2017–2022. Retrieved from https://www.nasponline.org/utility/about-nasp/vision-core-purpose-core-values-and-strategic-goals
Skalski, A. K., Minke, K., Rossen, E., Cowan, K. C., Kelly, J., Armistead, R., & Smith, A. (2015). NASP practice model implementation guide. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Marina Donnelly is a doctoral student in the school psychology program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a student leader of the NASP School, Family, and Community Partnering interest group