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Winter 2010

Making the Connection

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When Erika Smith, Ed.M.'07, arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Education campus in the fall of 2005, she wondered how to stay connected to the school. As a part-time student who was also working full time, Smith wanted to make sure that she didn't miss out on the graduate school experience.

Then, Smith attended an event sponsored by the Student-Alumni Mentoring Initiative (SAMI) -- a formal mentoring program offered by the Ed School's Alumni Relations Office that aims to connect alums and graduate students. The event, she says, changed her graduate school experience from being focused solely on academics to a more well-balanced one.

Every year hundreds of students come to the Ed School with concerns about making the most of limited time and staying connected, on top of juggling assignments, work, and social lives. The goal of SAMI is to create mutually beneficial mentoring relationships between students and alums by fostering formal and informal meetings during the academic year.

"SAMI highlights the importance for graduate students of building relationships with one another and to the school, networking, and lifelong learning," says Kristen DeAmicis, Ed.M.'05, former assistant director of alumni relations. "However, this is also another way for alums to give back and demonstrate a commitment to HGSE."

Now in its sixth year, SAMI began when two master's students, Eric Stone, Ed.M.'03, and Amy Fenellosa, Ed.M.'03, came up with the idea to start a mentoring program on campus. Fenellosa and Stone connected early during their year on campus thanks to their shared interest in organizational psychology. "We both had mentors in our lives that were significant influences personally and professionally," Stone says. "We decided to propose a more formal program."

The proposal, which grew out of a student club called Counsel on Mentors and Leaders, paired alumni and students with varying interests. Although Fenellosa and Stone had already graduated when SAMI launched in the fall of 2004, both worked closely with Alumni Relations to help structure the program, as well as to arrange for student and alumni matches, applications, and mentor training. The program attracted 24 participants in the first year. "It was more successful in the first year than we could have anticipated," says Stone, who now works in healthcare but continues to research mentoring.

Lecturer Eileen McGowan, Ed.M.'98, Ed.D.'04, director of the Field Experience Program at the school, supported Stone and Fenellosa in creating SAMI. "They were really ahead of the time," McGowan says. "SAMI [has] developed into a strong, in-house program."

The number of alums volunteering as mentors grows every year. For the 2009-2010 school year, 90 alums are donating their time. "The fact that it's still going on and has [so many] participants is a clear reflection that a need exists. It's very gratifying to see something that started out as an idea come to fruition," Stone says. "I get an opportunity every year to talk to alums and students in the program and hear [about] the benefit gain."

SAMI kicks off as soon as students are on campus each fall. Mentor profiles are shared online, where students have an opportunity to view them and identify up to three mentors who most interest them. In October, mentors and mentees are invited to meet at an event. Directly following the event, students give their mentor preferences.

Finding an appropriate match is one of the most important aspects of mentoring, explains McGowan, an expert on mentoring. "Mentoring is a relationship," she says, noting that mentoring serves not only as a career function, but also a psychological social function. Within a month after matches are made, mentors and mentees are "trained" by McGowan on making the most of the relationships.

"Good mentoring is reciprocal. While the intention is toward the protégé, both people should benefit," she says.

In most cases, people volunteer as mentors when they have experienced a prominent mentor in their own lives or careers, McGowan notes. "Mentors are guides along the developmental journey. They share expertise from their lifetime journey and point out the pitfalls, share mistakes, and ways to overcome. They provide networking opportunities and encourage students to have a greater visibility in the field," she explains. "This is an opportunity to make a connection that without SAMI would be difficult to do, with someone who walked this road before and is able to share expertise."

Mentors come from a range of experiences and backgrounds. For instance, Joe Cronin, M.A.T.'57, has had a lengthy career and an array of experiences in education, ranging from superintendent and dean to professor and consultant. He got involved a few years ago with SAMI to share some of that experience.

"Depending on whom the mentees are and what they are interested in, I can draw on five decades of experiences and share some of those experiences with them, answer questions, and talk about career-building strategies," he says. "To me, it's more about what they are going to get out of it. I will gain the satisfaction of being an individual coach, adviser, and tutor."

Once a match is made, SAMI recommends a range of activities to ensure that the relationship blossoms. However, the activities of SAMI mentors and mentees vary depending on what both people want from the experience.

For Smith, it was as simple as meeting up for the occasional cup of coffee and conversation or participating in her mentor's hobby. Smith laughs thinking back to the time she made candles with her mentor, Ande Diaz, Ed.M.'94. Unfortunately, Smith just didn't possess Diaz's artistic touch. Still, Diaz became a source of inspiration for Smith. "I was super inspired by her commitment to fitting everything into her life," she says. Though Diaz is not acting as a mentor this year, she encouraged Smith to become a SAMI mentor herself.

While Smith is currently studying for her Ph.D. at Brandeis University and working fulltime at the school on a college access program, she is giving back to students at the Ed School. "It's a great way for students to get perspective outside of the academic experience," she says. "It helps to remember that there is a world out there."

Illustration by Jeff Hopkins, Ed.M.'05