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Good mentorship has the power to unlock university students’ potential

Good mentoring can open up entirely new worlds for university students. Shutterstock

Good mentorship has the power to unlock university students’ potential

When I sent out an informal notice to my computer science students offering mentorship to anyone who wanted it, I wasn’t expecting many replies. After all, how many students rush to get involved in voluntary activities when they’re already so busy with academic work?

I was wrong.

Within two days 40 students had signed up. More requests followed – five of them from students who don’t even attend my university. The mentorship program kicked off in September 2016 and has been running for nearly six months.

In that time the students and I have learned a great deal about what it takes to mentor and be mentored in a structured, meaningful way.

There’s a vast amount of research evidence that proves how valuable mentorship can be. It improves students’ academic performance and, at its best, also equips them with the skills they’ll need to excel in a professional environment.

I have started to see all of this for myself, and have learned a number of lessons about what works when it comes to good mentoring programs. These lessons may be valuable to others who want to establish mentoring programs at their own universities.

Ask questions before you start

I conducted a survey to determine what the students expected and whether they’d had any prior experience with mentoring. 83% had never been mentors or mentees. My next step, using their survey answers, was to categorise students’ expectations into themes so I could tailor the mentorship program to these.

Four themes emerged: professional development, innovation, community involvement, peer-mentorship, and scholarship.

Professional development: 80% of the students said they wanted to work on their “soft” skills, such as the ability to express their skills in a scholarship or a job interview, confidence in presentations, and their writing skills. All of this was in a bid to become all-rounded graduates. This suggests that highly structured university curricula may not be enough: students may need additional support to prepare them for the working world.

Innovation: most of the students said they wanted to improve their ability to develop quality ICT solutions, and to increase their confidence to participate in collaborative software projects. The students worried that the university curriculum may not be drawing from cutting-edge industry standards, leaving them at a disadvantage once they graduate.

Community involvement: 60% of the students said they hadn’t participated in or attended a tech event while at university. And 83% hadn’t been involved in any peer-to-peer mentoring where they could learn from each other. The best teaching must happen within lecture halls, but students need to connect with each other and with different forums outside the classroom.

Scholarship: Many of the students weren’t aware of the many scholarship or grant opportunities available through the university or external organisations. They also had little experience in how to write a good scholarship application.

Armed with all of this information, I was able to design a mentorship program that directly addressed the students’ needs.

Responding to students’ needs

We’ve focused on responding to the four themes students identified in the survey. For instance, the students have attended writing workshops as well as “soft” skill workshops hosted by industry professionals. Some have even attended international conferences, giving them a chance to develop their networking skills and meet professionals in the ICT industry.

There’s also been a lot of work around the issue of collaboration and innovation. The mentees have been involved in collaborative sessions with other Kenyan tech institutions like Moringa School and Nairobits. Some have also participated in Google’s Hashcode online programming competition for the very first time.

Some of mentees have taken the initiative and registered Kenya Methodist University’s Nairobi Campus’ first ever Computer Science Society. This organisation encourages students to get involved in software design and programming competitions.

Networking has been crucial. Whenever I get an invitation to speak at or attend any tech event, I ask whether I can bring my mentees along.

In some cases, the mentees have become mentors: they’ve volunteered to work with other students, participated in outreach activities at local tech schools and have even taught classes on software development aspects such as GitHub, a collaborative platform where programming projects can be hosted; web design, and programming using Java and C++.

The feedback from students attending the peer-training has been overwhelmingly positive, with 100% of the attendees asking for additional classes.

There’s also been great success on the scholarship front. The students now feel empowered to apply for scholarships or similar support. Nyariak Deng‘ became the first-ever student from our university to attend the 2016 Grace Hopper Conference in Houston, Texas, on a full scholarship from Anita Borg Institute. This is the largest annual gathering of women technologists in the world.

Her achievement is particularly worth celebrating since 70% of those studying computing at my university are men. It is crucial to encourage women students to get involved in mentorship programs.

But it’s also important to note that the mentoring program I run is open to both men and women – universities shouldn’t ignore male students who need support and assistance.

Mentoring matters

All of this has proved to me how much university mentoring programs can offer. The quality of higher education in Kenya has been repeatedly criticised. Some of the “fixes” are obvious: hire more quality academics, improve research culture and improve university facilities.

But immersive, active mentorship is also vital. It is a way to introduce students to the world of work in more ways than just through curriculum and classroom activities.

It is also a way to keep academics engaged and excited about their work. I am humbled to have recently been nominated for a “Zuri Award” which recognises women who contribute positively to their communities in Kenya. This recognition, along with the mentees’ excitement, has given me the much needed impetus to continue holding the ladder for students in computer science.