College students need mentors. Alumni can help.

During National Mentoring Month, career centers can rethink the definition of mentoring and activate their alumni networks to find mentors

Gen Z has a “do-it-yourself” mindset which, combined with their skills as digital natives, give them access to a wealth of career information online. More than ever, this generation is relying on online career platforms (66%) and employer websites (62%) to learn about jobs and career opportunities.

But, in the high-pressure transition between school and career, a mentor can offer invaluable guidance. Campus career centers have an opportunity to connect alumni mentors with students to help with career discovery, networking, and practical advice.

Broadening the definition of mentorship

“Mentorship” often brings up a vision of a long-term, formal relationship between an experienced professional and green mentee. No wonder many people—not just college students—find it intimidating to look for a mentor. And for a generation used to getting their stories and soundbites in 60-second clips—or less!—the idea of sitting down with a mentor in a downtown high-rise and receiving life lessons feels forced and outdated.

By shifting the definition of mentorship, career centers can make the prospect less intimidating and more valuable for students. A mentor can be anyone who offers personalized help—formally or informally—in the job search. It could be a conversation about career direction, support with an application, or advice on navigating workplace norms. 

Most importantly, a mentor doesn’t have to be much older than the person they are helping. Alumni networks are a rich source of informal mentors. Given how rapidly workplace culture is changing, young alumni could offer fresh ways of navigating early career pathways.  

A gap between intent and action

In our recent Handshake Network Trends report, we found that 92% of all respondents (across genders, ethnicity/race, and school selectivity) would offer to help a younger person they don’t know from their college with career advice. 

But, only 15% reported that they themselves reached out to alumni. 

Why the discrepancy?

Even when students are aware of the importance of networking, they may not know how to approach an alum, or what to talk about. They may fear not getting a response. Or, they may be anxious about “putting themselves out there” and potentially looking foolish. 

Career centers can bridge the gap

The key is to normalize these connections and create a venue for Gen Z’s desire to support each other. Handshake’s Alumni Hub feature can help career centers make the most of their alumni networks and connect grads to current students. 

Career centers can, and do, play a critical role in helping students follow through on their desire to network with alumni. Respondents who reported using career services to learn about careers were more likely to know how to network (65% vs. 54%) and more likely to plan to connect with alumni (53% vs. 38%) than those who hadn’t leveraged resources from career services in the past.

The benefits of virtual networking

With virtual networking becoming the norm, tapping into a geographically dispersed alumni network becomes even easier: 67% of respondents felt that you do not need to have met in person to establish a professional connection. 

Virtual connections also open up ways for students to find a wide variety of mentors across different industries, roles, and personal backgrounds. These connections can help students crystallize their skills and interests into a clear career path.

“When I met [my] initial mentor, I was really lost in my career. Handshake opened doors for me in that they connected me to a mentor that catalyzed my interest in a specific career field and has led me to where I am today.”

Hannah, Stanford University ‘19

For a first-person account, watch Hannah’s story below. Hannah stumbled on her first mentor at a point when she felt lost and directionless. That connection ended up sparking a passion and a career path in genetic counseling.