Mentoring support for students at the University of Sydney

Robert Johns and Jelena Vukcevic
The University of Sydney's mentoring programme was developed to provide help, support and guidance to students in their personal and professional development, as they negotiate the challenges of their final year of study. The final year is a lecture-free year during which students complete a series of assessed practical work rotations through the various disciplines. The mentoring programme runs for 12 months from mid-November each year and has a strong focus on relationship-building, providing education, low-level structure, supervision, monitoring and support for all participants.

The key points of the model include:

  • An induction session for mentors and mentees at the launch of each year's programme. The session has information and guidelines on the programme and on how to develop efficacious mentoring relationships. As part of this session, mentor training is provided for each year's new mentors including communication skills, coaching skills, counselling skills, how to deal with crises and fostering confidence in mentees.
  • Minimum monthly contact between mentor and mentee for the duration of the programme.
  • Quarterly feedback from all participants to the programme director.
  • Participants contact the director if they are experiencing difficulties in the mentoring relationship that they cannot resolve.

The programme is now in its sixth year and student uptake has grown steadily from nine pairs in the first year to approximately 50 pairs for each of the past three years. It attracts a representative cross section of the student demographic, including confident high-achievers and those who have struggled throughout the course. The programme achieves its aim well and delivers predictable outcomes with strong positive feedback from over 80 per cent of mentees. The relationship failure rate is below 10 per cent, although some of those deemed to have failed do reconnect later on.

The role of mentors

Mentors volunteer from all avenues of the profession including small animal practice, large animal practice, specialist practice, the welfare sector, government, academia and some who are retired. The majority of mentors are within a radius of roughly 200 km of Sydney, as students have to spend five months of the year on rotation in the city's two university clinics. However, some mentors are from interstate and even overseas if students choose to travel more widely for some of their rotations.

Most mentees don't start out with specific needs or goals. Rather, they are attracted to the general idea of having a mentor who might be able to help with a range of issues if or as they arise. Even low-needs mentees say that knowing they have a caring senior colleague available to them who is willing to help creates a significant degree of psychological comfort. For many mentees the relationship has been pivotal in helping them make a major positive shift in confidence and competence as the year progresses.

Mentees identify in their feedback that mentors help in a broad range of ways, including: acting as a source of information and insight; being a professional and personal role model; being a confidant and providing support during times of personal difficulty; helping to develop and refine professional skills and knowledge; helping with managing stress and developing coping skills; facilitating self-directed learning; teaching specific skills or knowledge; helping to build professional networks and assisting with career direction and employment, including direct offers.

"Mentees identify in their feedback that mentors help in a broad range of ways"

Experience has shown that any mentee can have unexpected upsets or crises at any time during the year, either course-related, personal or both. Most experience some crisis of confidence regarding their professional skills, especially when they are first thrust into rotations and find themselves under constant assessment pressure while attempting to demonstrate various intellectual and practical competencies.

Mentors provide valuable support and guidance in helping ground mentees in having realistic expectations of competence for their stage of learning. Also, mentors share their own personal trajectory, which often involves having overcome similar anxieties and struggles to normalise a mentee's experience and demonstrate that these difficulties can be overcome with perseverance.

On a personal level, we have had mentees meet with serious health issues, bereavement, divorce (their own or parental), terminal illness/death of their pet, financial hardship and difficulties with various interpersonal aspects of their rotations. Once again mentors have provided valuable support through these difficulties. Mentees report that they greatly value having a listening ear and support from someone who isn't a parent or staff member.

The quarterly feedback from participants is a critical aspect of the programme's structure. As director, this enables me to keep my finger on the pulse of each pair, troubleshoot and help solve problems, help prevent relationship failure if possible, and guide pairs to increase the quality of their relationship. Roughly 30 per cent of relationships struggle to form in the early months of the programme. In these instances, I provide support and guidance to help get them established, usually successfully. In the six years since the programme began, there has been only one personality clash between mentor and mentee serious enough to warrant the dissolution of the relationship. The mentee was offered, but declined, another mentor.

Support and guidance for mentors

Sometimes, mentors need support and guidance in dealing with a particular issue their mentee is having. I assist them in a range of ways including offering strategies to deal with the issue, adding my support to the mentee in addition to that of the mentor and helping direct the mentee to further support services either within faculty or beyond. Some mentees need to be supported in deferring their studies and others to overcome difficulties and continue. I also have a special interest in stress, burnout and suicide in veterinarians and have trained as a counsellor. The programme provides a forum for me to convey important messages concerning self-care to mentees (and mentors) and deliver direct assistance to those who may be struggling.

Programme challenges

The main challenges the programme has faced are attracting enough mentors (there is usually a slight shortfall annually) and getting mentees to take some responsibility in the relationship. In training, mentees are informed that, in return for their mentor's kind offer of support, they are expected to be responsible for initiating contact. They do this with varying degrees of enthusiasm and some expect to be completely ‘carried’ by their mentors, which, ultimately, doesn't serve them well. Also, pairs are inevitably separated geographically for much of the year making face-to-face contact – the most powerful relationship-builder – impossible. It's vital that both parties remain committed and use other means of communication to maintain and build the relationship.

The programme is a worthy addition to undergraduate education. It is both touching and a great joy to see the kindness and compassion with which we discharge our duty of care to animals, directed to supporting and fostering the development of our junior colleagues. Many relationships continue after the formal end of the programme, meaning mentees are supported through the critical new graduate phase of their development. Many mentees have begun what they state will be a lifelong friendship.

It is anticipated that the current programme will dovetail into a proposed new graduate mentoring programme and a programme for first-year students, which are both currently being developed.

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