Telemachus and Mentor

What is the role of a mentor (at the University of Groningen)

In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor is Telemachus’s wise friend, providing him with advice and assistance. The word ‘mentor’ evolved to mean trusted advisor, friend, teacher and wise person.

At the University of Groningen mentors are the older and more experienced students who provide help and advice to first-year students. The main task of a mentor is informing first-year students at the start of the academic year on how a university works, where they can find the information they need, and give them advice about studying and living in a new environment. They make the first year students feel at home and are the first person for the students to go to with any question they might have. Mentors also play a crucial role in referring students to a study advisor or other lecturers, if necessary.

There are many different forms used for mentoring, depending on the faculty or study. Sometimes mentors get a contract as a student assistant (and so receive a salary from the faculty), others do this voluntarily. Sometimes the mentorship is organised by the study advisor, sometimes by the student association. Usually, the mentoring involves a number of meetings with a group of about 10 to 15 first-year students from the start of the academic year until Christmas, in which the mentor has a program to ensure all the students get the information they need to make a good start in their new academic environment.

Here’s what a few mentors have to say about their mentorship.

David

The most important thing I found is that things never run as smoothly as predicted.

Suzan

The introduction is always rather standard, a bit boring even, it is hard to keep a discussion going and I find it difficult to bring up the subject of studying.

Hans

This is my third year as a mentor. The first year I thought everything would sort itself out, and that resulted in a rather loose way of mentoring. The group fell apart because the students felt that nothing was happening – they expected me to organise and take the lead much more. Last year I thoroughly prepared each meeting, drew up a programme and thought about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to convey to the students during the meetings. Despite, or perhaps thanks to this task orientation, the meetings turned out to be much more fun. This year I will try to find the right balance between business and fun.

At the end of a mentor programme, mentors often report two dilemmas.

Should we focus on fun or on studying? It is sometimes difficult during a meeting to stop the fun chit-chat and get down to business (result orientation). Both aspects are important, and this combination is also what the first-year students expect: they want to get together in a pleasant atmosphere, but they also want to learn from each other and from you.

Do you let things run their course or do you decide exactly what must be done? Although the dictator approach is a thing of the past, simply letting things run their course will often result in the mentor group falling apart because the students feel that not enough is happening or that they are not learning enough. It would therefore be a good idea to draw up a programme for the meetings. Such a programme should of course relate to the aims that the faculty has with the mentor programme. The faculty’s mentor programme organiser will usually know best how to define these aims, and they will of course be discussed during the mentor training sessions.

In short: usually there are two important aims for these mentor programs

  • to help first year students quickly feel at home in the faculty and get to know each other,

  • to provide them with information about study-related matters, within as well as outside the degree programme, to help them find their feet in the university environment.

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