Online mentoring program to connect students with alumni

Story by Erica Jobman, NewsNetNebraska

How do you connect more than 2,000 College of Agriculture and Natural Resource students with more than 14,900 CASNR alumni?

Through an online mentorship program.

Jill Brown, the director of external relations for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR), is planning an ambitious program that will pair students from each of the 28 majors offered in CASNR with alumni from their field. The program will join the ranks of the Scarlet GuardCather Circle and other department-specific programs that pair students with alumni, according to Shannon Sherman of the Nebraska Alumni Association.

But interactions between students and their mentors will be mainly through the Internet.

“Most of our alumni are out-of-state,” Brown said, “but there is no reason they can’t work with students virtually.”

Brown started the program out of her own curiosity, she said. She began a conversation with leaders from several CASNR student groups and learned they all wanted a student-alumni mentoring program.

“It was surprising,” she said.

The more she thought about it, the more it made sense.

Missed opportunities

“There aren’t many opportunities for students to speak frankly with alumni,” Brown said.

When students do interact with alumni, it is usually when they are job-hunting, she said. Students always have to be “on.”

“The world is so busy, so full, that you miss out on a lot,” she said.

While students are more likely to get more job opportunities by networking and interviewing, there are benefits for students to simply talk with professionals, she said.

“It is so easy to see your idols and where they are and want to apply for that job,” Brown said. “But we forget about the path they took to get there.”

Speaking with alumni outside of interviews allows students to see the process of getting their dream job. She said there was as much to be learned from other’s successes as well as other’s failures.

“Visiting with alumni gives students a unique perspective on what others in their similar career field have encountered,” she said.

In addition, it is highly unlikely that a freshman will seek the same job as a graduating senior, she said, so the more careers students can be exposed to the better.

“It is great to have another person to bounce ideas off of.”

Students seek guidance

Elise Ross, a fifth-year horticulture major, said she wishes she had a mentor when she was a freshman. She started out at an interior design major but switched her sophomore year.

“I was miserable,” she said. “I just wanted out.”

She picked horticulture on a whim, she said. She enjoyed it, but it was more to get away from interior design. Getting a job was even farther from her mind.

“Graduation is getting closer,” she said, “and I have no idea what I want to do with my major.”

Having a mentor in the horticulture industry would have helped her a lot, she said.

“I still have so many questions,” she said. “There is a lot that college doesn’t teach you.”

Aaron Block, a junior agronomy major, couldn’t agree more.

“College is more about preparing you for that dream job than telling you how to get it,” he said.

Gaining the necessary skills for a job is important, he said, but it’s not the only thing that is.

“I want to know how to get that dream job,” he said. “I want to know what the professionals would do differently if they had to do it all over again.”

And you can’t just ask those kind of questions when you’re being interviewed, he said.

Putting the program online

The biggest challenge for Brown, however, is logistics.

“Because this program is student-driven, it is difficult to tell how much to control,” she said.

Everyone is different, she said. Some people text every day and some people talk once a month, so it is difficult to figure out which platform to use that would accommodate everyone. But if it is a medium you use every day – like Facebook or Blackboard – there will be a greater chance of students and alumni staying engaged, she said.

Having an online mentorship program would include alumni who want to mentor but who would otherwise be unable to participate because they live across the country, she said.

“And the more people that know you’re job searching, the better it is for students,” Brown said. “Alumni would be even more helpful in that sense.”

She has already reached out to CASNR alumni and received numerous names of people interested in mentoring.

“It is great to have one more person who knows what to do,” she said. “And that relationship doesn’t go away.”

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