UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — College life can present students with an overwhelming number of decisions and opportunities, all of which can have an impact on the rest of their professional lives. Having someone to talk to, especially someone who was once in the same place, can have a profound impact on student success and navigating career goals.
About eight years ago, the newly formed Penn State Mechanical Engineering Society (PSMES) decided to leverage the experience of the thousands of mechanical engineering alumni who had once been students themselves by creating a formal mentoring program. In early 2008, with strong support from the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, the first group of 54 students sat down to meet with their 39 alumni mentors.
“My mentor and I often communicate right before a big event and he’ll give me the confidence I need,” said Brandon Angle, a mechanical engineering junior involved in the PSMES mentoring program. “It helps to have the guidance from someone who’s been there and who went through all the experiences that I’m going to go through and just knowing that if I take his advice it’s probably going to lead me somewhere where I want to be.”
Angle is one of about 235 juniors, seniors and graduate students receiving advice and guidance from 226 mechanical engineering alumni volunteers, ranging from recent graduates to seasoned professionals. The success of the program is evident in its growth, as well as the fact that many alumni who took part in the program as students are now volunteering their time as alumni mentors.
“The main reason I joined the mentoring program is because I was the first person in my immediate family who wanted to become an engineer. The people that I normally go to the most when looking for guidance — my mom and dad — were not going to be able to help me with questions that I had about the career,” said Matthew Phifer, a 2015 mechanical engineering and PSMES mentoring program alumnus.
While every student’s needs are different, many students ask their mentors for resume help, so they are getting advice from someone who knows the industry. In addition, mentors open students’ eyes to unknown opportunities, such as undergraduate research; provide networking connections; and give tips on dining etiquette, interview practices, business dress and letter writing. However, probably the most important thing mentors can help students with is narrowing down career options.
“Almost all of the students I’ve mentored have not really focused on what they want to do,” said Robert Swope, a 1959 mechanical engineering alumnus and PSMES mentor program volunteer. “They have a vague idea of their goals, but they can’t verbalize what their career would be.”
It’s not just the students that benefit from the program. Alumni mentors also find the mentoring relationship extremely beneficial.
“Most of our mentors are working engineers or engineering managers who benefit professionally by interacting with today's millennial students. They can keep abreast of the current mechanical engineering curriculum and possibly interest a student in their own company," said Rich Randall, a 1971 mechanical engineering alumnus and PSMES mentoring committee chair. "Helping a young student make good academic and career decisions or to make the best possible personal presentation to prospective employers is extremely rewarding.”
Mentors and students are paired based on a set of criteria including technical interests, career aspirations, industry interests and hobbies. The hope is that the mentor and protégé can connect on a personal level and form a lasting relationship. In most cases, the formula works and successful mentoring relationships last long past graduation.
Phifer has been in touch with his mentor, Amos Morse, a 1978 mechanical engineering alumnus, many times since graduating.
“Most recently I reached out to Amos about reviewing my resume,” Phifer said. “Amos has also helped me with scenarios that have come up in my job that have been brand new to me as an entry-level engineer.”
Swope has stayed in touch with four of the students he’s been paired with over the years. He noted that as students move on to careers, families and other life changes, mentors can offer more than just professional guidance. He recently helped a mentee that was dealing with aging parents, and he joins another mentee’s family reunion every year.
“Mentoring is a process of assisting someone to make their own decisions,” Swope said. “I never tell anyone what to do, but I push them to make sure they have considered everything in their decisions and choices.”
Since 2008, many other alumni groups across the College of Engineering have also started successful mentoring programs with their respective departments based on the mentoring guidelines and resources developed by PSMES. These programs thrive largely because of strong department support. However, it’s the alumni volunteers and the students who really make the program successful.
“The alumni volunteers are very dedicated and I believe that comes through to the students,” said Randall. “And the students make it succeed. We expect the students to take responsibility to make use of their volunteer mentors. As long as enough students take that initiative, mentors will stay engaged and the program will continue to succeed.”
“The mentor relationship has really expanded my thought process beyond my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. I never really thought further than Penn State and I never considered going to graduate school,” said Angle, whose mentor is Swope. “My mentor has given me the encouragement to take what I have and do the most with it.”