The Importance of Mentoring

A peek inside the University’s longest-running and largest mentor program.

By Sarah Howard

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of the Murphy Reporter.

Imagine you’re entering your senior year at the University of Minnesota. You’re finishing your classes and graduation is in sight. You have an internship or two under your belt. But, what’s next? For many, the thought of entering the job market is overwhelming. The thought of picking your career path is daunting. Where do you turn?

For 30 years, the SJMC Alumni Mentor Program has paired SJMC juniors and seniors with Twin Cities professionals in the journalism and mass communication fields to help with these questions and assist in the transition into the “real world.”

In 1982, then-SJMC alumni board president Carol Pine, who is now owner of Pine & Partners, saw the need for mentors to guide SJMC majors. “I had this interest in mentoring and saw how important it was in people’s careers,” she said.

The program kicked-off in 1983 with nine alumni mentors, but it grew quickly and soon the board had to recruit outside of the alumni network. “The most gratifying part of the program was when we started seeking more mentors, many of whom weren’t alumni, we explained the program and its importance and not a single person turned us down,” she said.

“The program grew quickly because it touched a nerve,” Pine said. “For students, it was something they wanted and needed, that senior person who can advise them. For mentors, it was the perfect way to not only give back to the school, but to give back to the profession.”

Today, the yearlong program has between 50 to 70 student participants annually and the network of professionals who have served as mentors is well into the hundreds. Additionally, many who were mentored as students return to serve as mentors years later. “I participated in the program when I was a junior at SJMC and it really helped me to understand what area of public relations I wanted to pursue,” said Sarah Dubois, account executive at Fleishman-Hillard and a 2012-2013 mentor. “I had a great experience and want to give back.”

When it comes to SJMC’s mentor program, the spirit of giving back is strong. In 2012, SJMC put out a call for alumni mentor program volunteers and received nearly 100 responses from professionals willing to donate their time to SJMC majors. “Every single one of us remembers the difference mentors make in our own lives,” Pine said. “Students need that professional in their corner.”  

To participate in the program, SJMC juniors and seniors attend a mandatory information session and complete an in-depth application, which asks the students what they’d like in a mentor and where they see their career going. Next, the SJMC Alumni Society Board steps in. Board members painstakingly go through the applications and help pair the students with professionals in their networks.

Once the matches are made, the students and mentors attend a kick-off event that allows them to meet for the first time, talk about their goals and set up future meetings. “This event is a really exciting time,” SJMC alumnus Scott Meyer said. “This opportunity sets [the students and mentors] on a whole new path.”

But there are limitations. From the program’s inception, three expectations have been constant: The program has a beginning and an end (but mentors and students may choose to continue their relationship outside of the program); the mentors and students must get together a minimum number of times; and the program is not just about finding a job for the student. “The program has lasted because everybody who has run it along the way has been conscious of the ground rules,” said Pine.

For many students, mentors provide guidance and can help steer the director of their careers. “[My mentor] helped me decide what specific path I wanted to take in the advertising world,” said Chad Kluge (B.A., ’12), who is an assistant engagement planner at Carmichael Lynch and was paired with Sarah Tukua, an account planner at Carmichael Lynch, in 2011.  “I thought I was going one direction, but she helped me see a different path and that’s altered my career in a way I never imagined.”

Mentors provide that additional level of guidance students just simply can’t get in class. “My mentor really helped me decide what I wanted in a job,” said SJMC senior Cole Ranzau, who was paired with Johnny Surprise, director of business development and client strategy at CPC Intersect, in 2011. “I don’t think there are a lot of people who can go into a job and say ‘This is what I want,’ but now that I’ve had this experience with Johnny, I have that insight,” Ranzau said.

“Mentoring is important because of the career growth,” said Meyer. “There is obviously an opportunity in which a mentor can help shape and guide your career growth,” said Meyer.

Students turn to mentors to provide them guidance and objective advice. “A mentor is someone who has been there before and is willing to take a step back and say, ‘I’ve been there and here’s what you can do,’” said Kluge.

“Sometimes you need that person to sit you down and tell you what to expect,” said Pine. “Providing that realistic point-of-view is so important.”

But mentoring doesn’t solely help the students. Mentors themselves can benefit. “You have to practice what you preach,” said Surprise. “The things that I was I helping Cole with I have to be successful just the same. It’s being real, being honest, being a great communicator.”

“Especially with how quick media is changing, students give a fresh perspective,” said tpt reporter, longtime journalist and former SJMC Alumni Society Board president Mary Lahmmer.

In fact, tpt President Jim Pagliarini says that their station has turned to “reverse mentoring” tactics in which students teach older generations a new skill sets.

The program also serves as a way for alumni to stay in touch with Murphy Hall. “It’s a way for us professionals to keep connected to what’s going on in the school,” said Pine. “Through the students, we see what they’re learning in class and what they’re prepared for.”

“The students are just so engaged,” said Lahammer. “It’s rewarding to see how completely prepared and engaged and academically rigorous these SJMC grads are.”

Many mentors get involved because they’ve seen the importance of mentors in their own career path. “Being a mentor is very important to me because it’s one way that I broke into the advertising industry,” said Tukua. “Mentors have that wisdom and knowledge and they’re so willing to pass that on.”

And one thing rings true: Mentors are willing to help students and are quick to give advice. “I wanted to share the knowledge that I have,” said Tukua. “I really believe in mentoring because we’re here to help people out. At the end of the day it’s all about people and the relationships that you have. Becoming a mentor, you make the next generation that must stronger,” said Tukua.

“The opportunity to have someone who is objective and someone who is watching out for your best interests in your career is a huge advantage.” said Meyer. “Interacting with someone who is a professional and has been involved in the field allows for such personal growth,” said Meyer.

“Mentors want to be there and they want to help out,” said Ranzau. “Ask questions and pick their brains.”

For many, the mentoring relationship goes beyond the year-long program. “Following the students and giving them advice about their careers is so rewarding,” said Lahammer. “I love working with students on their resume tapes, serving as a reference and continuing to work with them on their professional development.”

And given changing technologies, mentoring is sure to take on a new face in the coming years. Meyer emphasizes a new dimension in which mentoring will take at the University of Minnesota, including virtual mentor matching. “We have 500,000 U of M Alumni around the world,” said Meyer. “With the amount of alumni and the technology available, I see an opportunity for us to pair students with alumni who are working in different parts of the world through the use of Skype and other technology.”

These changes are only going to strengthen the mentoring spirit at the University of Minnesota. And SJMC’s program will continue to thrive. “When we started this 30 years ago, mentoring wasn’t part of mainstream thinking,” said Pine. “Our school was ahead of its time and really helped pioneer the importance of mentoring.” 

Mentor program participants