“In a survey of about 1,000 college graduates, Richard Detweiler, president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, found that students who sought out faculty mentors were nearly twice as likely to end up in leadership positions later in life.”
- George Anders, “The Unexpected Value of the Liberal Arts”
Finding your way in college can be daunting and a little scary. There’s so much to know – not just in regards to your studies, but figuring out what campus resources are available to help you succeed. Many students may feel overwhelmed at first… until they find their groove. That’s where your professors can help. One resource that many students overlook is their professors. Who better to help navigate academia than an academic?
Orientation is the start, but the additional knowledge of the system resides with your professors. Once you settle into your classes you’ll begin to see your professors as more than authority figures, they can be and want to be your mentors and cheerleaders.
“I wrote a paper for my Intercultural Communication class and when Professor Kendra Rivera returned my graded paper she told me that I had a unique perspective on the subject and suggested that I consider graduate school. It felt really empowering to get this level of feedback from my professor,” said alumna Kara Yap, BA in Communication (2019).
With Professor Rivera’s encouragement Kara participated in the Symposium on Student Research, Creative Activities, and Innovation, which she said she would not have pursued without Professor Rivera’s coaching and guidance. Kara went on to explain that the confidence she gained from her professor’s interest in her studies led her to pursue an internship with the Communication Department, which then led her to land a student assistant job with the CHABSS Dean’s Office. “It’s crazy to think how one conversation opened up these networking opportunities for me. Working with professors along the way and being mentored by them gave me confidence as a student that I never had before.”
Simple conversations can open pathways for you that you never knew existed.
*Take recent alum Conner Whitten as another example. Conner came to CSUSM as a transfer student in 2016 pursuing a psychological sciences degree. He began working in the lab of psychology professor Kim Pulvers, who introduced him to the Office for Training, Research and Education in the Sciences (OTRES), which helps students’ career development in biomedical sciences and related disciplines. Conner’s involvement in OTRES led him to many other fruitful opportunities and mentors.
“I’m grateful for these programs and to have these mentors,” Conner said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at or where I’m going.” Before graduating this past spring, Connor earned two of the highest honors the university can give: the Dean’s Award from the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences, which then led to earning the CSUSM President’s Outstanding Graduate Award.
It was his mentors and professors who nominated him for these awards and it was his mentors and professors who wrote him letters of recommendation for the Ph.D. program he will begin in the fall.
On the topic of letters of recommendation, one of the privileges of the job that professors often mention is writing letters of recommendation for their students. However, the professor is going to have to know you in order to do this and it’s on you to seek out and maintain these relationships – even after graduation. “It’s been a great honor to mentor many remarkable students during my tenure here,” said Dr. Kristin Bates, professor of Criminology & Justice Studies and Sociology. “I’ve developed some wonderful relationships with my students and it’s nice when a former student drops me a line and shares their professional successes with me.” She went on to explain that she’s happy to write letters of recommendation for the students who have shown the initiative to seek mentorship and maintain a relationship. “It’s one of my favorite parts of my job.”
Conversely, another professor recently recounted an instance where a former student emailed him requesting a letter of recommendation for a job he was seeking, but the professor had to politely decline because he had no recollection of the student. He explained that he didn’t feel comfortable writing the letter because he couldn’t attest to the student’s character or work ethic and all those things that go into a letter of recommendation. The former student erroneously believed that because he got a good grade in the class that the professor would be willing to write a letter for him. The professor went on to explain that if the student had dropped him a line from time to time, he would not have hesitated in writing a letter.
“One thing I think students are apprehensive about is reaching out to their professors outside of the classroom. Many may think that you only talk to your professor during office hours because you’re struggling in class and need their help,” said Leo Melena, CHABSS’ Director of Student Success, who also co-leads the CHABSS Career Network. “But, office hours are more than that. Office hours are the students’ opportunity to chat with their professors in a casual setting about anything that strikes an interest. It could be something brought up during class discussion or it can be an experience the professor shared about themselves that hit home with the student. These are good conversation starters that can lead to larger discussions about academic and career goals, and that’s where your professor can help you navigate to success.”
In many courses, students have an opportunity to do undergraduate or collaborative research with their professors, where they work side-by-side on developing the methodology of the research, conducting the research, interpreting the data, writing the paper (with the possibility of being published in a scholarly journal), and in many cases presenting the research at a professional academic conference. This process allows for mentorship and cheerleading as well as an opportunity for your professors to help you discover what interests you.
Psychology major Jennifer Figueroa started as a student within the Psychology Department and then applied to be a student research assistant to Professor Kimberly D’Anna-Hernandez. “Dr. D’Anna-Hernandez is a great mentor and took my interests and goals into consideration to find a place that would fit best with those interests in her lab. Through her guidance and development courses I took, I realized that I want to do research focused on adolescent and emerging adulthood populations,” Jennifer said.
As you embark on your CSUSM journey, take time to get to know your professors. Start by visiting your major’s webpage. There you’ll find more information on your professors and their contact details. While you’re there, also explore minors offered by the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences.
Remember that aside from teaching and researching, professors are regular people who
come from diverse backgrounds, just like you. Many have faced the same challenges
and struggles as you when they were on their own academic journey and had their own
mentors who helped guide the way. It’s now their turn to mentor and cheerlead, and
they’re happy to do it.
Welcome to the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences at CSUSM!!
*Special thanks and acknowledgement to Eric Breier for his contributions to the information in this piece on Conner Whitten.