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Mentorship helps students find balance during crisis

It’s difficult during the best of times for graduate students to strike the right balance between schoolwork, extracurricular activities and their personal lives. During the COVID-19 crisis and e-learning, finding this balance is even more challenging.

Mentoring @ Purdue (M@P) focuses on improving the experience of women and  graduate students from underrepresented populations in the College of Agriculture by helping them establish and foster relationships with mentors. During the course of a normal school year, M@P also offers a series of lectures and workshops focused on building and enhancing these relationships.

Levon Esters, a professor in Agricultural Sciences Education and Communications (ASEC), co-leads the team with ASEC Professor Neil Knobloch and a group of graduate students. In the midst of the current health crisis, Esters said, relationships between students and faculty may be altered or suffer, but it’s more important than ever for students and faculty alike to lean on the mentor-mentee relationship.

In mid- April, the M@P program hosted a webinar entitled Providing Effective Graduate Student Mentoring During the COVID-19 Crisis, which focused specifically on how students and faculty can support each other during this time.

The webinar was the brainchild of Torrie Cropps, an ASEC postdoctoral research associate who completed her Ph.D. in Purdue’s ASEC program and was heavily involved with the M@P team.

“Mentoring is about showing up, on both sides. Mentoring is about finding balance,” Cropps said. “In some cases, maybe a student just wants a mentor to help them find a job, but I think in most scenarios they are looking for someone that will help them navigate academics, the job market and their personal lives. Someone they trust who knows them well.”

Twitter feed Many students, organizations, faculty and others around the country contributed to a lively Twitter discussion live during the webinar.

Cropps communicated these sentiments,  after the fact and in a live Twitter thread, about the webinar which had 130 participants from across the country. Additionally, panelists discussed softening academic expectations during the COVID-19 crisis as graduate students and faculty are finding themselves in challenging settings, not always conducive to work.

Victoria Parker, a member of the M@P team and ASEC master’s student, said that has been the case for her.

“Certain deadlines that we set before the virus may need to be changed, for example. People are going through a lot and you don’t necessarily know what. When I’m at Purdue, I know my mind is in academic mode,” she said. “But now I’m back home in California and aside from the time difference making things difficult, there are lots of things dividing my time and attention.”

She added that she still meets virtually with her advisor, Esters, every week but they don’t always talk about schoolwork.

“The best thing a mentor can do right now is to be in touch with their students,” she continued. “It doesn’t have to be about work, just having someone to talk to and maintaining that sense of normalcy is important.”

Cropps seconded this sentiment, adding that honesty is a key component to every mentor-mentee relationship.

“What’s really coming out during this time is that mentors and advisors need to be a little more forgiving towards students and towards themselves,” she said. “And honesty, on both ends, is the best way to promote this.”

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