The Power of Mentoring within High-Impact Practices: A Focus on Low-Income Students

“As a first-generation student from a low-income family, conducting research in the field of psychology has opened doors of opportunity for me. When I first started at my community college, I never would have thought I would have the experience of coauthoring a paper with my advisor, in addition to [completing] a summer research internship at an Ivy League university, serving as a writing mentor, or tutoring in the community. I have become a more confident, inquisitive, sociable, open-minded individual, and I have deepened my critical thinking skills.”

Katie, my advisee, shared this sentiment following her recent graduation when I asked her to reflect on her time in college. Beyond two undergraduate research experiences, Katie participated in at least two additional high-impact practices: a writing-intensive course and community service. Each experience built her resume and revealed her strengths and interests. She made meaningful connections with people who invested in her long-term success.

I met Katie in my office a few years ago when she transferred to Mount Holyoke College from a community college four hours away. Katie was full of enthusiasm; she had an ambitious academic schedule in mind and was eager to get the most out of her truncated time at our four-year college. She also faced intense financial barriers and needed to find a work-study job soon. Although she had emotional encouragement from her mother and a cousin, she had no financial safety net. As her advisor, I needed to acknowledge the constraints she faced yet encourage her to pursue a wide range of possibilities.

Katie told me she was interested in a career in psychology, liked writing and problem-solving, and wanted to gain practical experience to explore various subfields. I encouraged her to pursue a research experience with me. As her advisor, I would likely be writing a letter of recommendation for her in the future, and this would help me get to know her better. I also walked her down the hall to meet our community engagement team so she could express her interest in paid work-study community engagement opportunities.

Later, I asked Katie to coauthor a paper with me. I also encouraged her to apply for a summer internship at an Ivy League school, though she initially thought such coveted internships were reserved for other students. Katie completed the internship, where she had support from a research mentor and fellow students. She fully applied herself to every opportunity.

A Pivotal Moment

Like Katie, I was a first-generation student who needed to work while going to college. My dad was struggling for stable employment after being laid off, and my mom was working in a fast-food restaurant. Semester to semester, I grappled with whether my investment in college was worthwhile when I could be working full time to help my family.

Instead of learning about options from an advisor, I stumbled upon my high-impact practice experience. One day, I overheard a fellow student asking my professor about undergraduate research. After class, I asked my professor what undergraduate research was, and I was stunned to learn I could get paid for it. He encouraged me to pursue a summer undergraduate research project under his supervision. My entire career trajectory—my life course, really—was shaped by that moment. I was so transformed by my undergraduate research experience that I have spent more than twenty years studying the mentoring experiences of low-income and first-generation college students.

In my advising sessions with students, I explain that through high-impact practices such as undergraduate research, community engagement, internships, and study abroad (Kuh 2008), faculty and staff get to know students in a multidimensional manner, and students learn about themselves and gain skills that will help them with whatever they do next. I hope that when I share my story, students will recognize that despite facing constraints, they have choices.

One goal of my research is to identify what makes mentoring possible within high-impact practices and how we can increase access to these programs for low-income, first-generation college students. Our institutions miss out when these students opt out of transformational educational opportunities. We need their insights, contributions, and talents.

Conceptualizing Mentoring as a Collection of Key Interactions

In my research, I have found that many people think of mentoring as a relationship with one “official” mentor (Packard 2003, 2016). In reality, most mentoring is informal, obtained through interactions with individuals across daily life, from home to school to work (Packard et al. 2009). We can conceptualize mentoring as a collection of key interactions with others where we emerge with new skills, confidence, and knowledge.

Students who opt into high-impact practices may increase the likelihood they will encounter mentoring interactions. To be clear, not every high-impact practice is a mentoring program; however, high-impact practices offer intentional, sustained interactions with thoughtful peers and invested adults.

Low-Income Students and High-Impact Practices

While all students may benefit from high-impact practices, the outcomes may be even more powerful for low-income students. Importantly, engaging in high-impact practices can facilitate a sense of belonging in higher education for low-income students (Means and Pyne 2017). These students especially benefit from gaining a peer cohort (Cox 2017).

Low-income and first-generation college students may perceive that high-impact practices are reserved for other students. Although flyers advertising these opportunities do not include obvious restrictions, low-income students (who need to work) and transfer students (who are under a time crunch to fulfill graduation requirements) may feel that they do not have time to participate.

I offer two perspectives on why low-income students may not opt to pursue high-impact practices despite their benefits, as well as ways to help change this.

Why Feasibility Matters

Feasibility is an important construct to consider when analyzing who participates in high-impact practices. Interest is often operationalized as who signs up or applies for an opportunity. Students’ perceptions of an activity’s feasibility shape their interest, and for this reason, I think of feasibility as a dimension of interest (Packard and Babineau 2009; Packard 2016). It is difficult for low-income students to generate interest in an activity that is too costly to be a realistic choice.

We need to actively resist seeing early applicants as “go-getters” while viewing students who express trepidation as disinterested. Students may exhibit ambivalence when they have questions about how to finance an opportunity (Means and Pyne 2017). Students may say they are not interested if they see an “either/or” choice between paid work and a high-impact practice.

What can you do to improve feasibility?

  • Be flexible. Is it possible for students to work at a part-time job or contribute to family responsibilities while participating in a high-impact practice? For example, a study abroad program in May (a “May-mester”) that includes financial aid may be more feasible for low-income students than a longer program (Sanchez 2012). As an undergraduate, I gained permission from my professor to leave my research experience an hour early twice a week to keep my part-time job. A colleague of mine permitted a half-day research schedule in his lab to allow students from a nearby community college to participate. Faculty and staff need to be proactive about offering flexibility as low-income students may otherwise opt out instead of asking for modifications.
  • Address logistics. Logistics support, such as transportation, may be a deciding factor. When I told my professor I did not have transportation to the field site, he asked a team member if I could catch a ride with her. This mentoring moment left me less embarrassed in what was already an intimidating new experience and made the difference in my decision to “opt in.” While some colleagues may feel this type of advocacy deprives students of the chance to be self-sufficient, I would argue that students who already have transportation may not have obtained it by being self-sufficient, either.
  • Embed high-impact practices in the curriculum. Many colleges and universities provide key experiences for most or all students, such as writing-intensive courses or first-year seminars. Campuses including Portland State University and California State University–Monterey Bay require community engagement work (Calderón and Pollack 2015). Doing so takes the option out of the equation.

Why Recognition Matters

While participating in high-impact practices may help students cultivate mentoring relationships, students may rely on mentoring to gain access to high-impact practices in the first place. Indeed, students need a letter of recommendation to apply for some opportunities. Others may be open enrollment, yet some students will not consider enrolling without a credible person encouraging them to do so. This messenger might be a faculty member, a staff member in a cultural student union, an employer, or a peer (Means and Pyne 2017).

Recognition is when someone sees you and your future potential; a professor or advisor literally recognizes the student as a developing member of the community (Carlone and Johnson 2007). Numerous students, particularly first-generation, low-income, and racially minoritized students, recount painful moments of being overlooked or dismissed; they also describe powerful moments of being seen or recognized. In these mentoring moments, students begin to see themselves as belonging. A student may reflect, “If my professor thinks I am good enough for that opportunity, then I should take a second look.”

How do you facilitate moments of recognition?

  • Issue a direct invite. First-generation college students are less likely to go to office hours (Kim and Sax 2009). Faculty might stop a student on the way out of class or send an email to pass along an opportunity. In my research, I found that faculty who embedded encouraging, informative messages in their courses reached many students beyond just those who followed the faculty member back to his or her office (Packard, Tuladhar, and Lee 2013).
  • Help students understand why high-impact practices matter. One strategy is to annotate major maps (major requirement documents that all students receive) with information about the importance of high-impact practices. Low-income and first-generation college students may not realize that faculty and staff write letters of recommendation based on their in-depth knowledge of students’ growth, and that high-impact practices allow these adults to get to know students well.
  • Spread messages from alumni to demystify the process. Students are particularly motivated by alumni who they perceive have walked in similar shoes (Packard and Hudgings 2002; Packard 2016) so it is important for students to hear from alumni from diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds about their experiences with high-impact practices. Invite alumni to speak to first-year courses or leverage their online testimonials within these classes. This approach is much more accessible than optional events.

Conclusion

The power of high-impact practices has been documented widely. Colleges and universities are expanding their programs, but when low-income and first-generation students self-select, they may opt out, and we may misinterpret their lack of participation as a lack of interest. By improving the feasibility of our programs, and by recognizing students so they can feel truly invited to participate, we can make high-impact practices more accessible and inclusive for all students.

References

Calderón, José Zapata, and Seth S. Pollack. 2015. “Weaving Together Career and Civic Commitments for Social Change.” Peer Review 17 (3): 6–7. https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2015/summer/Calderon.

Carlone, Heidi B., and Angela Johnson. 2007. “Understanding the Science Experiences of Successful Women of Color: Science Identity as an Analytic Lens.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 44 (8): 1197–1218.

Cox, Amanda Barrett. 2017. “Cohorts, ‘Siblings,’ and Mentors: Organizational Structures and the Creation of Social Capital.” Sociology of Education 90 (1): 47–63.

Kim, Young K., and Linda J. Sax. 2009. “Student-Faculty Interaction in Research Universities: Differences by Student Gender, Race, Social Class, and First-Generation Status.” Research in Higher Education 50 (5): 437–59.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Means, Darris R., and Kimberly B. Pyne. 2017. “Finding My Way: Perceptions of Institutional Support and Belonging in Low-Income, First-Generation, First-Year College Students.” Journal of College Student Development 58 (6): 907–24.

Packard, Becky Wai-Ling. 2003. “Web-Based Mentoring: Challenging Traditional Models to Increase Women’s Access.” Mentoring & Tutoring 11 (1): 53–65.

———. 2016. Successful STEM Mentoring Initiatives for Underrepresented Students: A Research-Based Guide for Faculty and Administrators. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Packard, Becky Wai-Ling, and Maureen E. Babineau. 2009. “From Drafter to Engineer, Doctor to Nurse: An Examination of Career Compromise as Renegotiated by Working-Class Adults Over Time.” Journal of Career Development 35 (3): 207–27.

Packard, Becky Wai-Ling, and Janice A. Hudgings. 2002. “Expanding College Women’s Perceptions of Physicists’ Lives and Work through Interactions with a Physics Careers Web Site.” Journal of College Science Teaching 32 (3): 164–70.

Packard, Becky Wai-Ling, Grace June Kim, Marissa Sicley, and Sarah Piontkowski. 2009. “Composition Matters: Multi-Context Informal Mentoring Networks for Low-Income Urban Adolescent Girls Pursuing Healthcare Careers.” Mentoring & Tutoring 17 (2):187–200.

Packard, Becky Wai-Ling, Charu Tuladhar, and Jin-Sol Lee. 2013. “Advising in the Classroom: How Community College STEM Faculty Support Transfer-Bound Students.” Journal of College Science Teaching 42 (4): 54–60.

Sanchez, George J. 2012. “Intensive Study Abroad for First-Generation College Students.” Peer Review 14 (3): 14–17. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/intensive-study-abroad-first-generation-college-students.


Becky Wai-Ling Packard is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College.

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