As an undergraduate student at Pepperdine University, Amy Adams' study abroad trip helped her find something she wasn't looking for, but would value for years to come: a career mentor.
Adams began assisting one of the school's program directors while in London. Their relationship at work allowed them to grow close and naturally turned into one of mentoring. When both returned to California, where Pepperdine is based, Adams' mentor continued helping her find employment. Her mentor got her a job on campus, then an off-campus position once she graduated.
It's been more than 10 years since the two met, and their relationship is still going strong.
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"We do keep up a few times a year," says Adams.
Now, as the director of the Seaver College Career Center at Pepperdine, Adams helps other college students find mentors who can advise and support them as they start careers. She believes it's never too early for students to have mentors. Even freshmen can start looking for one.
"It's absolutely important and probably one of the most critical things a student can do to sort of pave the way for their professional success," she says.
"Having sort of somebody who is working on your behalf professionally can really help set you apart as you compete for internships and jobs."
A good mentor is someone who listens, wants to invest in a student's professional future and is working in the student's field of interest, experts say.
College students have a variety of ways to find mentors and make sure the relationship is long-lasting. At some schools, administrators take the lead on making sure students find professional mentors.
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The Tiger Ties Mentorship Program at Clemson University, for example, uses computer software to pair students in the College of Business and Behavioral Science with alumni mentors.
"It's like online dating," says Renee Hebert, director of the college's Office of Student Enrichment. About 200 student-alumni matches are made based on common interests, a student's major, location and other criteria.
If a school doesn't have a formal system for helping students find a mentor, Hebert encourages students to use other avenues to find alumni, who are often invested in seeing students succeed.
"Go on LinkedIn," she says. Alumni events and a university's alumni center are also good places to start your search, Hebert says.
Other career experts encourage students to visit their school's career services department as well as tell professors that they're looking for a mentor. What's most important, Hebert says, is that students tell people they're looking for career guidance.
"If you don't ask, then we don't know how we can help you," she says.
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If students are shy, however, approaching potential mentors or telling others about a mentor search can be intimidating.
Julia Baker Jones, director of the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development at Davidson College, has a tip for undergrads in this position.
"What I tend to do is to get involved in things I care about, and meet the people who are connected to those and develop those relationships organically by working together," she says. "Then they know what I'm about and I have a sense of what they're about. We might not officially say 'You're my formal mentor,' but those have been the main mentors in my life."
Once a student has found a mentor, it's important to discuss how the relationship will work, experts say.
"Set the ground rules," says Hebert. "So for example: How often will we talk in one month? What is the expectation if I email you? What's the expectation of receiving a return email? Is that within 48 hours? Is it 24? What does that look like? How will we communicate? Will it be via phone? Text messaging? Email? A combination? In person?"
Students should expect to do the bulk of the work of establishing meeting times and working around their mentor's schedule, experts say. And because many relationships work best when both parties have something to gain, students should help their mentors when given the opportunity.
"They also need to be thinking about what I can give to this relationship," says Adams from Pepperdine. "We all have something to give to other people."
She recalls a mentor who needed a baby sitter, and the mentee was able to find three possible sitters by the end of day. She encourages students to find creative ways to give back.
Students should make sure they are always benefitting from the relationship. If they want the relationship with their mentor to last, it's important for students to periodically review goals.
When doing so, students should have realistic expectations of what is and is not feasible. A mentor cannot work miracles. Students will still have to take the lead on jump-starting their careers.
"Do not expect to get a job out of this. Do not expect to get an internship. That's an extra bonus and a perk," says Hebert.
Baker Jones agrees that students can't set high expectations too soon.
"They should not expect for their mentor to be an advocate for them until they've demonstrated to their mentor that they are worthy of that advocacy," she says. "A mentor may have lots of connections, but you have to demonstrate that it's worth them making those introductions. Because it can be detrimental to them if you don't follow through."
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