Interview with Paul Dionne by Desiree’ Amboree, ’18

Paul Dionne is the Inclusive Success Coordinator, housed in the office of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness, at Beloit College. This interview delves into the benefits of mentoring relationships to students and their success in college. 

In your opinion, what are mentors and why are they important for students’ success on campus?

Well, mentors are important.  What are mentors? Mentors are guides. They are people that have experience and knowledge, they are usually older than the mentees and they serve as guides to people and help mentees realize their potential. So, that’s the way I think about it. I think they are really helpful for students to be successful, not only because I think so but because the research tells us that. They’ve done a lot of important research studies, the Gallup-Purdue Index Report being one of them, evaluating student experiences and if you have a mentor or guide to really help you when you’re a college student to show you the way your outcomes are so much better. I think they’re 2.2 times better outcomes. So the research supports that having a mentor or a number of mentors is really going to benefit your experience of college. In my experience, it is important because they show the way, they help you as a student figure what’s important for you, what you need to do to be successful, and they help guide that process along for you.


How do you identify mentors? What qualities to you look for in a mentor?

For students to be mentors? I look for student who have been around the block if you will. Not a freshmen but at least a sophomore, or a junior, senior— an upperclass student who is not necessarily a star student or the best student, that’s nice too but I’m also looking for people that have had experienced on campus that will help them relate to the mentees. So, students who fit in terms of affinity with the student I’m targeting and in terms of social identities is a factor to me. Also, I think about their trajectory at the college and I take that into account. And the third piece, I am looking for students that also have had good mentors for themselves and recognize the importance and value of mentoring so that they can use it and become mentors themselves.

Have you ever had mentors your life? Who were they and how did you find them? How did they facilitate your growth? 

Yes, I’ve had mentors in my life. I still do to a certain extent — I think that’s part of the secret sauce for just about anybody to improve themselves and to get better and to find their trajectory in life. When I was in college I didn’t really find mentors, they found me. I stumbled upon mentoring relationships — typically it was with faculty members and some staff as well when I went to college. Maybe that’s something we’ll talk more about later, when you stumbling upon mentoring relationship, because I don’t think that’s the best way.

But in any case, I had an anthropology professor I started working with, I had a working relationship with him. I wasn’t taking a class with him, I was actually working with him, he was a client, if you will, and our relationship grew into a mentoring relationship where he really helped me think about what I was doing with my life, what was important to me, where I should go, and what I should do with myself. There was some short-term thinking in terms of my studies as a student and how to be successful at college, but also there was a lot of work around long-term planning, thinking and setting goals that was really beneficial to me as a student at the time. That continues to the present day even though now I am a lot further along in my career and in my life. I still have people I consult with, that I look up to, who have more experience and wisdom than I do, who can give me advice and guidance.

How do you think mentors are different than coaches or advisers?

Yeah, well, there’s definitely a lot of overlap. I’ve coached people, I’ve mentored people and I’ve advised people myself, so i don’t think there’s one necessarily better than the other. I just think they emphasize different things.

For me, a coach is someone who is going to help you focus on something rather specific and look for you to improve on that. In most cases, the coach has a prescription for you. So, think about the sports metaphor of course, where coaching comes from. You have to follow this training plan and then you’ll get faster or you’ll get stronger, whatever it is the goal is so they kind of direct you to do something. So that’s a coach and thats important in certain contexts to have coaching.

An adviser, especially in an academic setting is something who knows all the ins and outs of the curriculum, who will help you pick out you classes for next term. There’s a way in which advising can be a sort of nuts and bolts practice in terms of helping you navigate the curriculum as student and getting you to graduate on time. Of course advisors do a lot more than that. They also help you think about what major you want to select and how that fits in with you interests and your goals and that’s important work too.

The mentor for me is a different step in the process. The mentor is really helping you reach your potential really helping you become the person you should be. The mentor really tries to figure out who you are as a person, what you value, and helps you reflect on where you want to go. They don’t give you the road map but help equip you with the tools so you can figure that out by yourself.

While an adviser or a coach may really be directing your progress, a mentor really puts that back on you as the mentee to figure that out for yourself and try to provide you with the tools to do that. Another important difference for mentors is that mentors are really helping you get to where you want to go and part of that, for me, is networking. So one of the roles that a mentor plays is connecting the mentee to resources and people that will help them advance and get them to where they want to go. For me, mentoring is really intimately tied to networking. 

What should we not expect from a mentor? 

Well the first part about what should we not expect, is we should not expect a mentor to tell us what to do. Or even in some cases, show us the way although that does happen in some instances. Ideally, the mentor is just kind of pointing in the general direction and then you have to figure out for yourself: how do I get there, what do I do, what do I want to do with my life? The mentor will give you advice and guidance, but they wont direct you, they won’t give you the answers necessarily.

What actions could compromise a mentorship?

I don’t know, that’s a tough question. I’m trying to think of examples of what would that compromise a mentorship. I think obviously there needs to be mutual respect between the mentor and the mentee. I think there needs to be a sense of cooperation and having the same goals, but there’s a lot of negotiation that takes place there. I guess if the communication breaks down, if there isn’t a shared understanding if there isn’t a shared sense of respect I guess that could be a problem.

I am trying to think about examples where I have had mentees and I may be guiding a mentee to go in direction A but they end up choosing direction B and I may be frustrated and disappointed with that decision, but at the end of the day, it’s not my decision to make.

So I think maybe that’s part of the answer: the mentor needs to be able to accept where the mentee goes. I can think of an example in my own life where I made the decision that was different than what my mentor wanted me to make and that did damage the relationship because my mentor wasn’t able to accept that and for some of these life decisions you don’t know if its the right or wrong answer and that’s a part of the journey.

Do you think mentorships happen organically, or is there a formal process that students should use to find a mentor?

I think its both, both of those are true. I think in most cases mentoring relationships happen organically, people fall into them, people find each other by accident or happenstance and they end up working together. That’s one of the frustrations that I have because I see on this campus certain students, certain group of students tend to fall into those relationships more easily and more readily than others.

I would like to see mentoring relationships develop across the board for all of our students because I do think it’s so critical to have good mentors for them to be successful here at Beloit and beyond; because, once you see and recognize the value of a mentor, this is a great place to learn that as a student, you will carry that forth and seek out mentors in the future. But if you don’t happen to fall into that relationship you may never get to identify the importance of that. So I think it is important to try and find structured opportunities for students to connect and find mentors. A lot of, I don’t know if its a lot of my work, but a fair amount of my work involves how do I facilitate these opportunities for students to get mentors and learn the value of mentoring so they can use it here in college but also beyond. Because a lot of it happens by accident and I am not happy with that,that’s not sufficient to me.

Before we close do you have any final thoughts or words of wisdom?

Words of wisdom? I’m always looking for words of wisdom! I think part of being successful at college for students is to have mentors, I’ve already said that but I guess I would restate that. And also to recognize the value in social networks and the importance of social networks. Students oftentimes come to Beloit and they try to do things all on their own and they’re missing out on a big part of their education here. A lot of thriving here at Beloit and beyond is recognizing you have to work with other people, you have to learn from other people, you have to teach other people, and those are all really valuable skills that will help you be successful here but also very much so afterward.

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