Effectively mentoring online students is difficult. And given the surge in enrollment in online degree programs over the past decade, as well as the number of students suddenly pushed online during the pandemic, college professors now face an unprecedented challenge. Previous: 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 complete their degrees and advance their careers?
Although mentoring can take many forms in higher education, this challenge is particularly prevalent in formal academic mentoring relationships, such as those that occur in thesis or dissertation counseling and in the direction of a laboratory or of a research group.
My department launched its first accelerated online master’s program in the spring of 2020, which coincided with the early days of the pandemic. This program grew rapidly and enrolled over 150 graduate students in the first year alone. Soon I found myself chairing dissertation committees and regularly mentoring online students. 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 were living across the country – and with everyone juggling with the new standard of living with social distancing, lockdowns and never-change mask requirements.
Thinking back to my own graduate studies, my favorite moments all included personal interactions with my two mentors. I remember having research meetings on the shady patio of my university father; the sun and breeze of a Midwestern summer hugged me as I cleared topics for a thesis. I remember the hotel room where my college mom would spend hours telling me how to deal with the systemic biases in academia that I would soon encounter as a woman of color. These 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 though I never meet them in person. Especially in the midst of a global pandemic.
Fast forward 18 months later: the graduate students I mentor have presented 21 local talks and 13 international talks and won three prestigious awards from the university and a national honor society. And I won an outstanding mentorship award from the faculty at my institution.
My students and I are now collaborating on five journal articles and 13 conference proposals while preparing their applications for doctoral programs. On the contrary, the virtual and distant nature of our relationships has created distinct opportunities for sharing and connection that would not otherwise be possible. Here’s how I did it and my recommendations for other faculty members who want to develop strong mentoring relationships.
Create an online community. Mentoring, first and foremost, is about creating an inclusive environment where students feel like they belong. Most of my students are adults who work full time and try to make time for their master’s degree in the evenings and on weekends. While they appreciate the flexibility of our asynchronous online program, they also feel isolated and want to be connected and involved with faculty, other students, and the program in general.
With this in mind, I have created an online community space for my godchildren in the form of a Discord server, and we use it as our main communication channel. We share information about the dissertation 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 how we keep track of shared documents, questions and answers, meeting agendas, grades, and progress. What we all appreciate the most, however, is the social aspect of it. We sympathize and celebrate with each other. We share everything from motivational quotes to awesome nicknames to inspiring cornhole achievements. We treasure super mom moments with photos of our children falling asleep in one arm and working on our research project in the other arm.
Connect with students holistically. The #1 goal of my personal mentoring practices is to uplift students and challenge them to reach new heights. I firmly believe in the motto of my undergraduate alma mater: “Having light, we transmit it to others”. My ultimate job as a mentor is not the transmission of knowledge or skills, but the transmission of light. I want to help my students find their own strengths and bring out the best in themselves so that later they can also bring out the best in others. On a scientific level, 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 academic identity than traditional graduate students, perhaps due to their non-traditional backgrounds or the guilt of not being able to fully focus on their pursuits. school. I constantly remind them of the obstacles 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 so much more than they realize. “If you can do better than that, why settle for less?” 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 via simple quick check-ins on Discord. In addition to discussions specific to the content of their research, I also answer questions, clear up confusion, listen to their concerns, give feedback, tell personal stories, and do a myriad of other things. My students know I’m there for them, just a Discord message away.
Facilitate team spirit and collaborative activities. Learning from peers is just as important as learning from teachers, if not more so. By choosing to work with me, all my students have a common point, either thematic or methodological. I help them establish these links and I lead activities that would allow them to get to know each other and collaborate.
We hold monthly research group meetings and bi-weekly writing times. We exchange comments on our writings and our presentations. We have mock presentations for thesis defenses. We work together on conference and journal submissions. While I collaborated with them on their first submissions or invited them to join mine, after a while they started to take initiative and plan their own collaborations with each other. All of this is done online via Zoom and Discord.
By the time they graduate, my mentees all have a number of items on their CVs that can help bolster their applications to PhD 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 move in their own direction and pursue their own passions, but the experience and connections they share here can stay with them for as long as they see fit. It’s really a community of future researchers that I develop and support.
Have fun and be authentic. Finally, people learn best when they are having fun. After all, we do it because we want to do it. I’ve never idealized college life, and oftentimes I’m just too busy to put on a show. Instead, my mentees see me in my most authentic moments (for example, having hardly slept for days because of a sick child and difficult deadlines). They hear my complaints about evil reviewer #2 and picky editors.
On tough days, I share motivational quotes to keep the gang going. We celebrate birthdays and backhand hole-in-one throws. My students nicknamed me Mighty Mai T, and they still have to create a logo for our research group t-shirts, because they are much better than me at memes and graphics.
When I know they want to apply for a highly ranked Ph.D. programs, I am upfront and candid with them about the potential competition they will face. I tell them, “I know that you have already worked very hard to balance studies, life and work. But if that’s your goal, you’ll have to work even harder to compete with those full-time students with more accomplishments on their resume. My students understand that academia isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, and they’re ready.
If you’re concerned about mentoring students online, don’t be. My online students have given me more than I gave them long before I met them in person.