It takes a city to run a university. Medical professionals, lawyers, realtors, administrators, event co-ordinators – you name it, there’s a job posting for it.
I came to this realization in my first semester at Concordia University in the fall of 2018 while taking a course called Social Innovation, Leadership and Change. This course was unconventional, bringing together students and community members in a space that didn’t resemble any classroom I had ever been in. There was a snack table where people congregated in amiable conversation, and the chairs were set up in a large circle with no desks. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, with a sense of community and collective experience that contrasted my other classes in single-seat, each-to-their-own auditoriums.
Through this course, I had an encounter that would prove to be pivotal to my undergraduate experience and ultimately plant the seed for a brand-new mentorship program at Concordia connecting students and staff members. This is the story of how the Connect Concordia initiative came to be, and why institutions should look inward to broaden student opportunities for exposure to the world of work.
What is Connect Concordia?
Connect Concordia is an internal mentorship program that pairs a student and a staff member for a one-hour online meeting to give students a hands-on look at how a university operates from many different angles. (Pre-COVID, participants met up for a half-day in person.) Its mission is to bridge the gap between university staff and students through mutually beneficial mentorship.
This program was initiated through a conversation I had with the Dean of Students in my Social Innovation course, when I asked him how a student who’s new to the university could get involved. From there, we scheduled a time to chat over coffee and the seed for Connect Concordia was planted.
Over the course of my three-year degree, I was able to develop a student-led, university-hosted internal mentorship program. It would be a lie to say that all it took was a conversation; there was a lot of research, stakeholder interviews, grant applications, many more conversations, testing and piloting, a few failures, and a lot of lessons learned. It wasn’t easy, but at every point, it was a pleasure to work on. Why? Because there was a tangible need for internal mentorship, and I was provided scaffolding every step of the way.
Why internal mentorship?
Students are constantly looking for work experience externally, while at our fingertips is a staff body representing a plethora of job titles. Through internal mentorship, students can build relationships to help them not only navigate and make the most of their university experience but also prepare for life beyond graduation. Getting a glimpse into the workforce, developing professional communication skills, learning workplace etiquette, as well as gaining access to someone’s network can be pivotal to jumpstarting one’s career. This is especially true for minority students and students on the margins or in failed-standing. Throughout the three years of running this program, we’ve seen a spike in student participants’ confidence and increased awareness of services provided by the university. In the last cohort that I co-ordinated, we managed 40+ pairings of staff and students, and over 90% of them reported they were enthusiastic to participate again.
On the other hand, Connect Concordia allows staff members to gain a great deal of insight into how their position supports students. While the staff body remains largely static in their jobs, the student body rotates constantly. How can staff remain up to date with the needs of the student population if there is a fundamental disconnect between the two parties? The direct feedback provided by the mentorship experience allows staff members in multiple offices across the university to gather a better understanding of the ways in which their work is (or isn’t) reaching students. In our pilot, we had a computer engineering student pair with a staff member in the library. At that time, the library was developing a new website interface, and the connection created allowed for the student to share insights into how to best shape the website update to students’ advantage.
“Getting a glimpse into the workforce, developing professional communication skills, learning workplace etiquette, as well as gaining access to someone’s network can be pivotal to jumpstarting one’s career.”
In my opinion, and based on my experience, bridging the divide between the two bodies is vital. The job market and economic landscape are changing rapidly, and our education system needs to keep up. There is high demand for graduates with soft skills and work experience, and the academic environment needs to change to meet that need. To me, the success of Connect Concordia is a testament to the simple ways we can reshape our education system to promote different types of learning. This program represents a small step in a necessary and systemic shift to instill students with a sense of confidence in their workplace readiness.
I had big dreams for my program. As an advocate for experiential learning, I wanted to eventually develop Connect Concordia into a for-credit program – allowing students to take part in a series of mentorships over their semesters and have it count toward fulfilling their degree requirements. In my last semester working on this program, I was able to have the experience added to students’ Co-Curricular Records. As I face graduation there is uncertainty as to the future of my program. But I’m not afraid of whether this program will continue beyond my time at Concordia; I can rest easy knowing that there is a palpable need for mentorship opportunities within higher education. Internal mentorship works, as most programs created by students for students do.
If you have any questions about Connect Concordia or want to contact me for advice, my inbox is always open: email@example.com.