Field Notes: Mentoring to build students' sense of belonging

September 9, 2019
  • Enrollment Management
  • Retention
  • career paths
  • field notes
  • Mentoring
4 diverse students stand in a group and talk

"Field Notes" is a regular AACRAO Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at

by Kenton Seaver, Director of Academic Operations, Naveen Jindal School of Management,  The University of Texas at Dallas

The concept of mentoring is not new to higher education. From acceptance, to admission, to enrollment, the student interacts with multiple people in multiple offices and roles at a college campus. But how many of those offices provide true guidance, acceptance, and understanding? 

According to Booker and Brevard (2018), “Students who are entering a new environment, who may be uncertain about how they will be accepted or perceived, need additional validation in the form of mentors who can connect with them in ways similar to their home setting.”

This validation is integral to the student being able to connect with the identity of the college and university and to develop a sense of belonging. This belonging, or a feeling of ownership, is a major factor in wanting to stay in school and become successful both on and off campus.

Arguably the most important part of the mentoring/mentee dynamic is how the partnership is chosen or put together. It is important to use metrics that have specific guidelines and purposes but also can be measured to ensure progress toward the goals can be attained.  How to match mentors and mentees can take on my forms, but there are certain denominators that can assist in the transition for the incoming student, and also have benefits for the mentor students themselves. 

1. Create dynamic mentoring relationships that focus on identity.

Whether you have a college with forty thousand undergraduates, or a smaller rural college with a few thousand students, campuses strive to create and maintain identities. One of the ways they achieve this is through student organizations. At the University of Texas at Dallas, there are over 300 student organizations and clubs -- and the Jindal School of Management (UTD’s largest college) has 68 of them.

College campuses have been and continue to be a place where students hone and build their academic, social, and political identities. UTD offers opportunities for new and returning students alike to become part of organizations rooted in cultural, social service, and political missions. All of these factors makeup a campuses identity, and the identity is shaped by the students in those organizations.

To use this dynamic mechanism as a basis for mentor/mentee matching not only makes since from a bonding perspective, but it also allows for the new student to see how the campus organizations function together at a higher level, allowing for understanding and hopefully leading to a sense of belonging for that student. 

2. Build meaningful relationships through academic commonality.

In the world of today’s higher education, enrollments are only part of the story. Retention is the factor by which many school and programs have their success measured, and in terms of funding from the state (which is shrinking in many places), this is key component to economic survival.

The Jindal School has several mentoring programs in place that are centered on academics aimed at creating both belonging and success. For example, our peer-to-peer mentoring is a student-directed mentoring program connected to each degree program across undergraduate studies. Mentors are students who are more experienced, who “know the ropes” across campus, and who are in a position to guide, advise, and assist less-experienced student mentees who are newer to UTD. Mentees look to mentors to provide advice on academic issues related to their major, advice on student life issues, student organizations and activities.

From a program perspective, The Jindal School MS Accounting program created a peer mentor program in the fall of 2015 to connect experienced graduate students with entering students to share academic and professional advice, resulting in greater student leadership and a culture of support and encouragement among our student body. For the mentor, this is an exciting opportunity to hone leadership skills – skills that will undoubtedly be put to work in the future. For the mentee, mentors serve as a trusted advisor and a confidant

3. Blend cultural and academic bonds through prior learning.

This practice can really be fruitful from many perspectives. First, thousands of students enter college every year with credit for prior learning, whether it be through dual credit programs, work related portfolios, or standardized exams designed to measure aptitude in a particular subject. The most commonly administered College Level Exam Program (CLEP) is the Spanish Language exam. Why not create dynamic mentoring relationships based on experienced students who have credit for Spanish (or possibly another academic area) with incoming students who have received the same type of prior learning? For first generation students, cultural background coupled with credit for prior learning are two factors for creating peer-to-peer and new student onboarding partnerships.

According to Barton (2017), “Many universities also have specific goals to preserve student diversity. Feelings of isolation may put diverse populations at higher risk of dropping out, but mentoring connects these students with peer support from others like them to help impart a sense of belonging, which acts as a powerful driver to keep them on their chosen paths.”

The Mentoring/Prior Learning initiative attempts to facilitate this connection with meaningful cultural interactions, academic support, and peer guidance with the idea that the continued process will encourage continued academic success and persistence.

Part of the any successful endeavor is allowing individuals to create a system or program that allows for the access to resources needed for success. Higher education success is about access to resources: the discourse, the climate, the atmosphere, and the ability to matriculate in a climate ripe with paths for success. Prior Learning allows access to college because of the ability to gain credit for life experiences that translate into college experiences. Focused mentoring allows for success after a student is already in college, and can help ensure that success after they leave.


Barton, Stephanie. (2017). "University Mentoring: Do Your Student Initiatives Serve the Modern Student?" Chronus, 5.

Booker, D., & Brevard, E. (2018). "Why Mentoring Matters: African-American Students and the Transition to College." The Mentor: Innovative Scholarship On Academic Advising, 19.



AACRAO's bi-weekly professional development e-newsletter is open to members and non-members alike.