Thriving in College: The Power of Relationships


In another endless season of rankings and scorecards, I continue to marvel at how often we measure everything except the things that seem to matter most for student learning. Too often, debates about education focus on the components: courses, books, majors, co-curricular activities, and strategic plans. But it would be a mistake to reduce colleges to these parts.

In truth, at their core, colleges are bundles of people. The quality of an education is driven by the relationships that form, (or do not form), between them. Students get the deepest education from colleges that focus on getting the relationships right, particularly in three critical areas:

1. The power of mentors: A great college experience starts with student-faculty relationships. As Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs write in their recent book, How College Works, "The most valuable relationships students have with teachers are mentorships. These entail a significant personal and professional connection, lasting more than just one course or semester. They cannot simply be assigned, but neither do they happen just by accident."

Mentorship happens when faculty, coaches and staff take the time to care about students, to connect with them. Mentors see themselves as catalysts for students, encouraging them to ask good questions, develop goals, and learn to achieve. In short, mentorship produces intellectual and ethical growth. It is central to the learning process.

As one example, I think about the recent Denison alumnus who remarked that it was the class a professor would not let him drop that turned out to be crucial to his intellectual awakening, because he was challenged to perform at a higher level and develop confidence in himself. And there is the Denison student who was challenged by a faculty advisor to run for student body president (despite never having run for anything), who is now an advisor for a U.S. senator. When looking at colleges with my own children, student-faculty relationships were the thing that I most tried to gauge.

Unfortunately, the magic of mentorship cannot be planned or scripted. A college can assign an advisor, but not a mentor. We can, however, create an environment where the odds of mentorship taking place are enhanced by doing two things:

First, we have to value it by putting mentorship at the forefront of who we are and what we do. We need to talk about it and respect it. And we need to recognize that most often students develop mentoring relationships by working with faculty in classes that are small and in colleges where faculty feel valued, respected and supported.

Second, we need to expand the pool of people on campus who think of themselves as mentors. Last spring, I asked students at Denison to list their mentors. They always listed at least one faculty member, and I was pleased at how often they also included people who work in residential halls, IT, the library, and on the facilities staff. I also was heartened by how grateful they were to student development staff, campus safety officers, administrative assistants and others, who mentored them in moments of crisis when they were struggling with classes, friends or issues back home.

2. The power of peers: Students learn a tremendous amount from each other. This is one reason why diversity is so important. For many students, this may be the first time they have experienced the richness of a community with a wide range of people who have had life experiences that are different from their own. As they bump up against differences of all kinds (e.g. race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views, religious practices) both in the classroom and across campus, they learn from one another how to be adults who are able to live and work with people who are different. They come to see difference as interesting, fun and important for good decision making.

We need to treat the campus as a place where students build, govern and sustain community. Residential halls, student organizations, athletic teams and arts groups create key interactions, where students push and prod one another in an environment of trust and respect. At Denison, we have become more focused on encouraging students to understand that one of their educational goals should be to form friendships with people who see the world differently than they do. We also are doing a lot of work on getting campus organizations that don't normally work together to collaborate on projects and events.

Some of this work happens in moments of conflict. On college campuses, people collide in ways that can lead to explosive moments. Those clashes are painful because they lead to disagreement, misunderstanding, and opposing needs. But those are the moments where learning and community growth happen. Students ask hard questions; they develop empathy; and they push each other to be better people, while also pushing their college to be a better place.

3. The power of networking: When students select a college, they are welcomed into a network of alumni, parents and local community members. These relationships are important sources of internships, externships, job connections and lifelong mentors. At Denison, like many liberal arts colleges, we are paying far more attention to creating more intentional pathways for these interactions to take place. Students hear the life stories of alumni and others, which is a powerful way to inspire students while also transmitting lessons learned, both small and large.

Recent research by the Gallup Organization found that college success depends on students having a professor who made them excited about learning; professors who cared about them as a person; a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams; the opportunity to work on a long-term project; a job or internship where they applied what they were learning; and/or deep involvement in extra-curricular activities. This is consistent with years of research conducted by the National Student Survey of Engagement (NSSE).

Each of these benchmarks of success is fundamentally about relationships. We need public policies, strategic plans, and public conversations that focus on how we get the relationships right. And if we need rankings (the topic for another post), we need to find a better way to measure the strength of relationships and the capacity of them to endure across time. The quality of the educational experience, and the depth of learning, come from the strength of the relationships.

In my time as a college president, I have been struck by a clear disconnect: With a few notable exceptions, the books being written and the public policies being drafted generally fail to address relationships, and they ignore the centrality of mentorship and friendship. Yet, ask alumni who are grateful for their college experiences, and that is almost all they talk about.