Promoting Lifelong Mentoring

Envisioning a university-wide progressive program

Deborah Watkins Bruner

Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Nursing and Director of Faculty Mentoring, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing

Deb BrunerIn the final recommendations of the Emory Commission on the Liberal Arts (CoLA) circulated to faculty by Provost Sterk last autumn, mentorship was raised as central to a residential liberal arts education in a research intensive university. In CoLA’s many discussions with students and faculty over the past year, the value of good mentors emerged repeatedly. 

From the partial listing on the CoLA website ( of the multitude of mentoring programs Emory already engages in, it is clear that Emory offers a wide menu of excellent, university-wide as well as school-, department-, or discipline-specific mentoring opportunities to undergraduates, graduate students, and young faculty. It is reasonable to assume discipline-specific approaches to mentoring will always be desired, but at the same time, there may be resource efficiency and wider equity to a centralized approach for at least some aspects of mentorship. 

An evolving university-wide coordination program could link existing Emory programs and supplement identified gaps.

Coordinating and supplementing Emory’s extensive mentoring activities could enhance the structure, incorporate best practices, and increase the number of students and faculty who participate in formal mentoring. CoLA recommended that Emory consider a life-long learning program for mentorship. An evolving university-wide coordination program could link existing Emory programs and supplement identified gaps. Here I propose one vision for such a progressive program, based on the karate belt achievement system. Undergraduate students would start a lifelong journey with practice that would help them from novice to mastery. 

Students would begin with achieving a “White Belt” by learning to proactively seek mentors and build skills to become mentors themselves. Emory could develop an interactive web-based interface for matching mentors and mentees. Undergraduates would be able to achieve a “Yellow Belt” as they transform from a pure novice to developing a basic understanding of the skills required to provide peer-to-peer mentorship. The white and yellow belts are the basic building blocks and, as in karate, all other skills in higher belts are built upon these basic skills.

Graduate and post-doctoral fellows would participate in this lifelong learning program for mentorship by progressing through “Orange Belt” training that would teach beginning mentorship skills, including advising and mentorship by example of undergraduate students, as well as interpersonal skills of supportive critique and encouragement. At the “Purple Belt” level the student would have advanced to the intermediate level as a proficient and successful mentee, an expert peer-to-peer mentor, and a beginning mentor of graduate students. 

Junior faculty would begin at the “Green Belt” level, as they meet the challenges, responsibilities, and tremendous opportunities of tenure or other faculty career trajectory. They are trained to renew and revise their mentee training and their mentorship of undergraduate and graduate students. Dedicated time as mentee and mentor becomes harder and more intense at this level. As junior faculty progress from assistant to associate professor they also should move from a green to a brown belt. At the “Brown Belt” level the mentee learns to balance independence with select interdependence and to advance their level of student and assistant professor mentorship and peer-to-peer mentorship of other associate professors. Evaluation of mentorship activities increases, and critical evaluation, taught at all levels, becomes more intense.

Senior and emeriti faculty progress to the terminal levels of mentorship achievement. At the “Red Belt” level, they are nearing mastery. Lifelong learners will have achieved skills that foster both practical and creative mentorship skills. Confidence, creativity and thoughtful course correcting influence are the exemplar skills role modeled for mentees at this level. Red Belts identify their own continuing and mature needs and foster appropriate mentorship/collaborative relationships to meet those needs. At this level faculty actively advise, counsel, and coach mentees as well as seek opportunities to reward and promote mentees. At the “Black Belt” level of mentorship, the faculty have reached the summit of achievement in mentorship. As in karate, those at the Black Belt of mentorship “work years to accomplish the mastery of a black belt,” as karate teacher Allen Sandoval explains it: “While the black belt is a symbol of great achievement, the belt itself is not the ultimate goal. The real reward is in the new self-awareness this belt represents.” 

As described in this schema, one possible method for implementing CoLA mentorship recommendations could utilize a karate-based belt achievement system to coordinate and enhance a lifelong learning program for mentorship beginning with undergraduate students through emeritus faculty.  



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