Mentorship support is now critical for students than ever before during this period of uncertainties and pressure due to COVID-19 and, subsequently, shift to online learning for students in Higher Education Institutions (HEI). It was, and still is, through the spirit and values of Ubuntu, the notion of ‘Motho ke motho ka batho”or “umuntu ngu muntu nga bantu” that the Faculty of Best Advisory – FBA mentorship was instituted. The program was initiated on the 4th of February 2017 to ensure that the spirit, as well as ideas of service, find expression among FBA student volunteers and professionals across HEI of South Africa and in the world of work.
“Kill that spirit of self and do not live above your people, when you rise, bring someone with you.” – Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke
However, this program was predominantly was run through physical one on one interactions and group check-in sessions before COVID-19. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, we offer perspectives on how mentorship support can move online not only for FBA but also for other institutions running similar programmes in the context of South African Higher Education.
The mentorship support programme is pivotal to provide a safe and smooth transition for students in the first year in HEI and later on facilitate their entry to the professional world. This is critical to ensure that students have a community they can belong to, lean on, and seek support from any form. This programme provides the social capital that students, mostly from black communities, poor and working-class, do not have in HEI.
The conditions currently dictate for the mentorship to be online and for peer mentors and professional mentors to engage and support their mentees virtually leveraging on 21st-century technologies. We also are sensitive to infrastructural and network challenges, which create barriers to online interaction. However, where possible, engagement should take place online.
As a mentor, you regularly advise students. It may be career based (professional development, and on general life skills or referrals to counseling services and mental health support facilities. Furthermore, mentorship is made of several essential pillars and unfolds in different ways depending on how it is designed and implemented and the program’s context. We further explore practical ways of leading a ‘successful’ online mentorship during a global pandemic and beyond.
The input is five-fold. We first explain mentorship as a relationship. Second, we highlight the significance of understanding context. Third, we focus on the skills needed to have a successful mentorship. The fourth and the pen-ultimate aspect is referrals. Finally, we share recommendations and invite a reaction from your side.
The heart of mentoring is mutual relationship.
The relationship between the mentor and mentee begins with building a relationship. It starts with setting and understanding the expectations of both parties. Clarifying what you both expect from this symbiotic relationship is very important. Having no clarity about the purpose of the mentorship creates room for assumptions; this then limits the value the mentor adds to the mentee. As a mentee, your mentor might assume you need advice on academics to find out that you have enough access to academic tutors. However, you may be struggling to navigate the university space at a social level.
Therefore, it is essential to communicate your specific needs and remember that mentorship is a two-way relationship. Your mentor will assist where they can and refer you to campus facilities regarding issues beyond their capacity.
Usually, during the initial stages of the mentor-mentee relationship, mentees can be disengaged and reactive rather than proactive. The mentors should take it upon themselves to create conditions for the mentees to feel welcome. The mentees can make the journey much easier for the mentor by being responsive when their mentors try reaching out to them.
The early days in mentorship are the best time to know each other beyond your goals and expectations. It is essential to consider that there are different types of personalities; some are extroverts; some are introverts while some are extroverts; therefore, both individuals need to tread carefully. Always remember that getting to know each other is an essential tool for building trust. This stage gives the mentor a clearer idea of the type of mentee they are dealing with and how best to add value. Getting to know each other means learning about each other’s background and interests.
Understanding the context matters.
In the context of Faculty of Best Advisory and many organizations supporting students, mentorship was through a one on one meeting between the mentor and mentee, and sometimes through calls and WhatsApp interaction, however, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, conditions have changed. As mentors and mentees, we have to explore alternative ways to communicate effectively and continue with supporting each other.
In the first article of Club Readership COVID-19 publication series written by Gama, Khoza, and Moswane on the “shift to online teaching and learning during the global pandemic,” the authors touched on emotional sensitivity, cultural humility, intellectual generosity, and technological inclination. Those above are crucial and necessary to navigate your mentorship relationship. For example, to communicate during the lockdown, the mentees may prefer technical applications such as WhatsApp or Facebook messenger, which are not data intensive. In some instances, the mentor may prefer video messages, using apps such as Zoom or Microsoft teams or skype.
Both the mentor and the mentee have a responsibility to understand each other’s socio-economic and cultural conditions. They should then adapt to use the applications that are accessible and affordable by all to ensure they are inclusivity and sensitivity. If a mentee is not reachable in any of the new media, a mentor should call or text. If they are still not reachable, you should alert FBA Head of Mentorship programme or your organization’s programme manager. In the case of the Faculty of Best Advisory, it would be Cate Nkalisthana (firstname.lastname@example.org ).
Communication is critical for successful mentorship.
Once there is consensus on a communication platform to be used, both parties have to share their schedules, neither can assume that contact can be made at any time. This will help identify how frequently you can have meetings. Once the mentorship goal and ways of communication are clear, the mentor and mentee can break things down and assess the bases of the mentorship. They then both need to come up with strategies that can enable them to reach their goals during and beyond the pandemic lockdown period.
Minenhle Khoza, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Faculty of Best Advisory (FBA) stated that “mentorship is not a one size fits all program. As a mentor/mentee, you always need to try and ask questions that will enable you to understand what type of mentee/mentor you are dealing with. Some mentees need a mentor who can give them innovative ideas and advice. While some need a cheerleader, one who can affirm their specific ideas and help improve and execute the ideas.” It is equally the responsibility of the mentee to be clear in terms of what they want. As a mentor, be flexible too.
Referrals to campus counseling services and national institutions for mental health support.
In a case and situation, when students require emotional support, which is expected given the trauma associated with the current location, refer them to their respective university counseling services to speak to professionals. Your role as a mentor is to direct the students to relevant resources during this crisis as you would under normal circumstances. Anyone can call South African Drug and Anxiety Group (SADAG). Contacts are below:
SADAG Helpline: 0800 456 789/SMS 31393
Suicide Helpline: 0800 567 567/ www.sadag.org
GBV Helpline: 0800 428 428
It is worth noting that under normal circumstances, there was one formal meeting scheduled between the mentor and mentee per month and constant check-in via WhatsApp and calls as and when needed or your agreements. However, we now find ourselves with changing social dynamics amidst the global pandemic and shift to online learning. This may also mean the mentor and mentee need to check up on each other a little more than you usually do under normal circumstances. This can be achieved through frequent agreed upon a phone call, text messaging, WhatsApp text and voice/ video calls, and so on.
It will be advisable to check on each other at least once a week. As a mentee, it is also your responsibility to reach out to your mentor to arrange a session if you wish to talk to someone. Beyond your mentor/s, reach out to classmates, friends, family members, fellow FBA volunteers or members of the soccer team, religious group, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.
In conclusion, the essence of mentorship is to facilitate personal and/ professional growth by sharing own life skills, experiences, and resources such as reading materials and referral to other resources. In some instances, it can lead to friendship and professional partnerships. As we go through this unprecedented period, may we remember the words shared by Dakalo Mulima when he said, “Instead of going with the flow, let us be the flow. Instead of demanding the change, let us be the change. We are the ones we have been waiting for. ”This crisis demands us to be digitally connected as social beings while maintaining the physical distancing as per the instruction of government authorities. “WE ARE THE ONES WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR!
By Minenhle Khoza, Mafule Moswane and Cate Nkalitshana.
Minenhle Khoza is a Ph.D. student and lecture at University of Johannesburg (UJ) and CEO of FBA. Mafule Moswane is a Ph.D. student and lecture at Kansas State University and Board Chair of FBA. Cate Nklaitshana is MSc student and Researcher at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and Head of FBA Peer Mentorship. They write in their capacities.