Perspective | Reducing barriers for community college students through compassionate virtual mentoring

As community college educators approach planning for the upcoming academic year, many questions remain. I’ve heard my colleagues, who serve in a variety of roles at North Carolina community colleges, raise questions about how to best meet the needs of their students whether it be through academic support, advising, or other supplemental services that promote learning and sustain students throughout their educational journey. One common theme among these conversations is their concern for how to connect with students in a meaningful way that lets them know they are cared about. The empathy demonstrated by these educators is a valuable trait that is lost in some settings, but not in community colleges. Reframing advising, counseling, or academic support through the delivery of virtual mentoring programs is one way to connect with students to provide care and concern during times of uncertainty.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all that’s occurring in a world so insufficient in empathy; however, it can be cultivated. As a new academic year begins soon, one way educators are planning to create space for the development of empathy is by delivering virtual mentoring support. An educator who is the first to reach out and make a connection with a student can be that person who seeks to demonstrate compassion in a way that creates a feeling of value for students. Students can feel when they are cared for — even in a virtual setting. Here are three ways to demonstrate compassion through mentoring community college students.

Model compassion

Setting the tone at the beginning of the fall semester will enable community college educators to provide a warm welcome and offer structured times and conversations for virtual mentoring. Questions to consider asking community college leaders include: Who on your campus is knowledgeable about resources both on campus and in the community? Who do students seem to connect with most? Who has the gift of empathy and compassion? Once you establish who these individuals are, assemble them and let them create a model for mentoring students on campus in a virtual environment.

Consider developing a CARE Team on your campus (Compassion, Access, & Resources for Education) to lead the delivery of virtual mentoring services to students. Reduce the barriers some students may experience by having the team connect with students rather than waiting for students to be the first to seek support or ask for help. 

Provide an inclusive mentoring environment

Although traditional services offered on campuses have shifted to virtual delivery in most educational settings, it will be critical that mentoring be an inclusive space designed for all student populations. Developing inclusive programming, like a virtual mentoring program, prompts doors to open and reduces barriers experienced by those who encounter challenges. Whether designing a supportive network for students through a Learning Management System (LMS) or establishing a way to connect with students in an effort to provide outreach and engagement, the design of the services should follow guidelines consistent with appealing to diverse backgrounds and world views.

Consider designing a mentoring program that reaches the outliers and not just the average population of students. Use the development of a virtual delivery of mentoring services as a first step towards shifting the campus culture towards inclusivity. When designing programs, like a virtual mentoring program, think of ways to make excellence inclusive and take action by acknowledging students for their unique abilities and strengths.

Mentor with a purpose

Create a vision for the delivery of mentoring; design the program with purpose. Be intentional about who provides mentoring services and how they are trained, and provide incentives. It’s likely that many faculty and staff are already serving in this capacity but are under-recognized for these types of contributions to the success of students. Recognize these employees by sharing their stories on social media, highlighting their accomplishments, and shedding light on the successes that are not specific to academic work but more focused on the human side of academic success.

Incorporating these three components into the delivery of virtual mentoring for students who represent the entire community college population will promote opportunities for empathy, engagement, and inclusive culture and will contribute to more equitable outcomes for students.

Carrol Warren, Ed.D. is a faculty scholar with the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research where she teaches in the Community College Leadership Ed.D. program. In addition to her teaching role, she serves as coordinator of the Doctor of Education degree distance program including the Executive Mentorship component of the program. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Meredith College, her Master’s degree in education from the University of Texas at Austin, and her Doctor of Education degree in Adult and Community College Education from North Carolina State University.

Prior to her role at North Carolina State University, Carrol’s background involved serving in various administrative roles at two of North Carolina’s community colleges, advocating for individuals with disabilities, and providing counseling in human services agencies. Her areas of research interest include student success in executive education, instructional design, and evaluation. Carrol is a native of North Carolina and resides in rural Sampson County on a farm with her husband and their two dogs.

Community Colleges Perspective