Tonya Drake is chancellor of WGU Washington. (Courtesy of WGU)

Tonya Drake is chancellor of WGU Washington. (Courtesy of WGU)

Tonya Drake: For mentor and mentee, exchange deepens learning

In higher education and after, mentoring offers guidance, encouragement and a fresh perspective.

By Tonya Drake / Herald Forum

Good mentors are gold.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my dissertation chair. She was female, Latina and very direct in her guidance for me. At the time, I was pursuing a doctorate and struggling to land on the right dissertation topic.

One day over lunch I told her I had three more ideas. One idea was to study Native Americans in higher education. “Stop,” she said. “Don’t bring me any more ideas. That’s what you need to do.”

I was hesitant to focus on my culture. I was reluctant, also, to focus on myself.

She asked me a question: “How many Ph.D. Native Americans do you think there are?”

She added, “You have to do this not for yourself but for all the female Native Americans to come and for your community.”

She was telling me to be bold and creative. In fact, she was telling me to be courageous.

The lunch conversation steered my career in a precise direction that has led to a fruitful and rewarding career in higher education.

The right encouragement or the right advice at the right time can make all the difference; and that’s why Western Governors University (WGU Washington) assigns a mentor to every student upon enrollment.

Mentoring is a foundational component of how our university functions. WGU mentors are as important to the academic success of our students as our course instructors and our evaluators.

And it’s a two-way street. No mentor is going to get very far unless the mentee is open to hear what’s being said. Mentor and mentee must work together. Effective mentoring leads to a relationship that is built on trust.

From everything I’ve observed as a mentor (and mentee) and from having watched many such relationships blossom at WGU, here are my tips for forging a successful partnership:

For mentees:

• Be open and on the lookout for those opportunities to learn from others. Being a good mentee starts with a positive attitude regarding what you can learn from others.

• Be bold enough to engage. Ask for help. Ask for advice.

• Be clear and precise about your hopes and dreams.

• Be clear and precise about what you need.

• Be persistent in developing the relationship with your mentor.

• Put effort into the relationship.

For mentors:

• Be open to opportunities to offer your mentoring skills.

• Be open to building relationships with your mentees.

• Be open to a two-way relationship with your mentee.

• Listen as much as you speak.

WGU’s focus on mentoring is one element in our university that makes the experience intensely personal and individualized; and successful. WGU’s six-year graduation rate is 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

At WGU, mentors help their students create a personalized plan that fits their life and goals. They provide guidance from enrollment to graduation (talk about continuity!). They provide information about program opportunities, policies and procedures. And they assess student strengths and development needs to help establish a study plan.

Even though the relationship between mentor and mentee develops over the telephone or online via the web, strong bonds are created. It’s not uncommon for WGU students to invite their mentors to attend weddings and commencement; that’s the true sign of a healthy relationship.

Mentoring is critical to the success of students who attend WGU. The standard higher education model puts most of the burden for learning on students; picture a lecture hall with hundreds of students taking notes from one sage professor.

Mentoring flips that model on its head. Mentoring is WGU’s way of saying, “We care about each of you and how you’re faring every week and every day.” Mentoring says, “If you’re struggling, we need to know.” Mentoring puts the heart back in education.

And that, too, is gold.

Tonya Drake is chancellor of WGU Washington.

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