By Peter Rooney
Pathways, a new online mentoring platform aimed at increasing engagement between Amherst College’s increasingly diversified student body and its well-connected and accomplished alumni base, is off to a roaring start.
Four years in the making and a collaboration between the college’s Career Center, Alumni and Parent Programs and Information Technology offices, Pathways launched in June for alumni and on Sept. 13 for students, with a kickoff ice cream social event outside Keefe Campus Center. Its aim is to foster connections between the entire alumni and student body.
“Pathways will help Amherst’s increasingly diverse student body and alumni base develop the relationships and networks that are critical to academic and professional success,” President Biddy Martin said. “Both students and alumni will benefit from this innovative online mentoring program.”
The democratic nature of the mentoring platform resonated with Edith Cricien ’14 of Miami, who noted that students are not equally adept at leveraging social networks, or even at appreciating the importance that such connections can provide.
“It evens the playing field a lot more in my opinion,” said Cricien, who was at Keefe encouraging other students to register for Pathways. “I work very closely with students who come from low-income backgrounds in my work in Admission, and with the QuestBridge scholars on campus. This is great way to make the networking process less intimidating for students from these backgrounds.”
With a student body that’s close to 50 percent non-white, and with more than 60 percent of its students receiving financial aid, Psychology Professor Elizabeth Aries said the Pathways mentoring program will help all students find alumni mentors to help navigate challenges they face.
"Alumni mentors can help students think about the kinds of coursework that would be advantageous while at Amherst, and the skills they might want to develop," said Aries, author of Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College. "Mentors may be able to provide connections to pre-professional summer jobs and internships, and jobs after graduation. While affluent students have generally had access to this type of guidance, this program helps level the playing field for lower-income students."
Also at Keefe fielding questions from her fellow students about Pathways was Tito Kolawole ’14 of Nigeria. She noted that students of all class years can benefit from having an alumni mentor with whom to discuss not just career prospects, but also how to navigate academics and other issues at Amherst.
Tito Kolawole ’14 (L) explains Pathways; Edith Crecien '14 (R) reviews material.
“I think it’s a way for even freshmen to start talking to people who have been through a similar situation,” she said. “People think networking is all about finding a job, but that’s not how you go about it. You can ask about majors, campus experiences, international travel, visa issues, as well as advice in finding a job. It’s just a whole world of things and information you can find out about.”
Pathways pairs interested students with alumni who have filled out a detailed professional and personal questionnaire and committed to mentoring up to two students per semester. (Go here to sign up and read more details about Pathways.) It supplements an online, searchable alumni directory that has been open to students for networking for several years.
“Pathways is definitely very student-friendly,” Cricien said. “Before, if you used the online alumni directory you weren’t sure if alumni were interested in mentoring. With Pathways you know they are, and that makes the process much less intimidating.”
Although Pathways was already in the works when she arrived on campus two years ago, Career Center Director Ursula Olender said she strongly encouraged broadening its reach to provide all students access to an Amherst alumni mentoring experience. The end result is something she believes to be unique in higher education mentoring programs.
“I wanted the program to be available to all students and alumni, not just a segment of those two groups,” Olender said. “We went back to the drawing board to figure out how to make that work, and worked closely with IT and Alumni and Parent Programs to tap into their expertise on building highly interactive databases.”
Alumni interested in signing up to be a Pathways mentor are asked to fill out a profile, which is made available to students looking for mentors. Alumni mentors can determine their active status in the program on a semester-by-semester basis, and the online profile is designed to allow mentors to hide their profile, while saving their information, for future participation.
Alumni selected as mentors will receive an email invitation to review the student’s profile, and can confirm or decline the request. If confirmed, students will initiate first contact with their mentors. Olender expects students and mentors to meet – online, by phone or in person – at least twice a month.
If students are excited about the program, alumni are even more so, said Betsy Cannon Smith, '84, P'15, executive director of Alumni and Parent Programs. She noted that more than 600 alumni have already signed up to be mentors, even before the program was formally launched for students last week.
“In general, alumni feel that the greatest contribution they can make to the college is to be helpful to students on campus and more of a resource for them,” Smith said. “Pathways is something that fills that need for alumni, and provides a pace and platform that students accustomed to working and living online can feel comfortable with.”
At the launch last week, Jacob Pfau ’17 of Palo Alto, Calif., had just stopped by the Pathways table with Angelina Guan ’17 of Beijing; both picked up more information about the program.
“I probably will sign up,” Pfau said, as Guan nodded in agreement. “It sounds like a different format. A lot of the things that are offered are interactions between students and professors. Alumni are an entire different group of people, so I’ll check it out.”