What is a Mentor? The ESC Connection

David Starr-Glass MBA, M.Sc., M.Ed.

Mentor, International Programs (Prague), State University of New York - Empire State College

One of the confusing things that many UNYP students encounter is that while they work and study for four years with UNYP their degree is awarded by Empire State College. Empire State College (ESC) is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.

Students who are pursuing the American degree option at UNYP are registered during their last two years with ESC, which sets the curriculum to be studied, monitors the quality of the education delivered, and finally awards the degree. Both UNYP and ESC work together in a strategic alliance that allows students to enjoy superior levels of education and to become eligible for the SUNY degree. Strategic alliances are designed to optimize the benefits for all stakeholders but, as all Business Administration students will recognize, strategic alliances also have to negotiate and balance the different cultures of the institutions involved. One of the significant cultural aspects of ESC is that it places great value on the use of mentors. This article explains what mentors do, how they do it, and why mentoring occupies a core cultural position in ESC.

First, we have to understand the difference between mentors and instructors. Instructors present course material and are responsible for effectively delivering that material; mentors, however, have a much wider responsibility of guiding and assisting learners to reach their academic or professional goals. In the educational and management literature there are literally hundreds of definitions of mentoring, demonstrating its complexity and diversity (Pawson, 2004). One of the most useful definitions is given by Powell (1997, p. 4), who says that mentoring is designed to “improve a person’s chances for achieving his or her goals by linking them to resources and support not otherwise available. The role of the mentor is to pass on knowledge, experience and judgment, and/or to provide guidance and support.… [offering] psychosocial support for changes in behavior, attitudes and ambitions….with the goals of reassuring innate worth, instilling values, guiding curiosity, and encouraging a positive youthful life.

You can see that the mentor serves multiple roles, all of which are centred on supporting and guiding. Mentors do not lecture or tell the learner what to do; instead, they work side-by-side with learners helping them do what they are trying to do. Mentoring has traditionally taken place through personal meetings, characteristically face-to-face and one-on-one. This format provides the opportunity for direct communication, interpersonal exchange, and the cultivation of trust and confidence. Direct face-to-face meetings have many advantages. They acknowledge that the mentoring relationship is personal and built on a growing relational bond between mentor and learner; as the bond strengthens there is place for growing trust and confidence.

Students, who work with ESC mentors, will however know that they only meet their mentor a couple of times a year when the mentoring team is present in Prague. This is not ideal – they should have much more one-on-one interaction with mentors – but ESC has logistical and budgetary constraints that limit the time that its mentors can spend in Prague. However, following their team visit, mentors remain in contact with their learners through Internet and by email – a strategy referred to as “e-mentoring.” E-mentoring is very flexible and versatile. It allows distanced participants to enter into mentoring relationships that are not limited by time and place, but to be effective both parties must be responsive and engaged in the process. The great advantage of ESC mentors visiting Prague is that they are able to start building strong relationships with their learners through personal meeting. Many studies have shown that e-mentoring is most effective when combined with at least some face-to-face contact between mentor and learner.

Since its creation in 1971, ESC has used mentoring. For the college, mentoring is not simply an instructional method: it represents an expression of its core value. ESC works with many different types of learners who have often made personal decisions to earn a degree later in their lives. These learners, like many UNYP students, place a great value on changing their lives and on reaching their own educational goals. They feel confident that they can learn, and do not necessarily want traditional institution with lectures, instructors, and inflexible time schedules that conflict with their own personal and work lives. But they do need support, encouragement, and guidance – they need mentors. Mentoring is a direct way of responding to the needs of these learners. Mentors assist and motivate; in a sense, they are catalysts in the process of the learner changing his or her life. These are the learners that ESC values; mentoring is the college’s way of acknowledging and responding to the needs of these learners.

So how can you best utilize the potential of your mentor?

  • Make sure that you meet with the mentor when he or she is visiting Prague
  • Remain in contact with your mentor after the Prague visit
  • Define with your mentor what you want to gain from the mentoring relationship
  • Mentors are guides, but you have to let them know what goals and destinations are important for you
  • Share with your mentor problems, challenges, and difficulties that you are experiencing – not just in the Senior Project Proposal or Senior Project, but in any other academic areas as well
  • Have confidence in your mentor and seek his or her advice on academic or professional issues
  • Allow the mentor to work: be flexible, open to new suggestions, and willing to participate honestly and respectfully in the mentoring process

The mentoring relationship need not necessarily end when you graduate. When you graduate you might also consider:

  • Remaining in contact with your ESC mentor, recognizing that although the old mentoring relationship has ended a new different mentoring relationship might be beginning
  • Consulting your ESC mentor about your employment and professional plans – he or she might have connections, contacts, and valuable knowledge
  • Contacting your ESC mentor for letters of recommendation when applying for graduate school – mentors often have the deepest and most insightful knowledge of your academic work and potential
  • Recognizing the strength and power of mentoring, select and approach those whom you think might be excellent mentors in your work or professional field. Most people in organizations have mentors, and you are ahead of the game because you already have experience working with your ESC mentor.

The mentoring process is rooted in antiquity and represents a deep human relationship that spans different cultures. In the epics of Homer, Mentor was a real person – an older and wiser man, who was appointed by Odysseus to guide his young son Telemachus. Mentor’s care and influence was particularly important, because Odysseus was involved in his own personal struggles and was far away from Telemachus. Interestingly, Mentor is sometimes portrayed as a very real human guide, but sometimes – especially when Telemachus was in urgent need of support and guidance – the “Mentor” came to visit him was actually the physical embodiment of Athena, the deity of wisdom and the supernatural guardian of Odysseus. Mentor was somewhere between human and divine, between male and female: a universal guiding presence. The ambiguities and influence surrounding the original Mentor remain embedded in the complexities and potentials of mentoring practice in the 21stcentury. For those of us who enter mentoring relationships – either as mentors or as learners – these ambiguities and influences only serve to underline the power, persistence, and exceptional opportunities that mentoring provides (Jones, 2012).


Jones, J. (2012). An analysis of learning outcomes within formal mentoring relationships. International

Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 10(1), 57–73. Retrieved from http://business.brookes.ac.uk/commercial/work/iccld/ijebcm/documents/vol10issue1-paper-05.pdf

Pawson, R. (2004). Mentoring relationships: An explanatory review (Working Paper 21). Economic and Social Research Council, UK Center for Evidence Based Policy and Practice, London, UK (October, 2004). Retrieved from http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/politicaleconomy/research/cep/pubs/papers/assets/wp21.pdf

Powell, M. A. (1997). Mentoring: A literature review. Sacramento, CA: California Research Bureau, California State Library. Retrieved from http://www.library.ca.gov/crb/97/11/97011.pdf

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