This past semester was formative for the HackCville mentorship program. We matched 100 students individually with alumni for two existing programs (Hustle, Spark) as well as two new programs (The Node, Ignite). To do so, we largely stuck to our past process: we sent surveys to alumni and students, used the responses to hand-match pairs, and emailed introductions. You can delve a bit deeper into the previous two semesters of the program here.
The growth of HackCville has important implications for the future of mentorship. As we continue to expand our offering of programs, my team adapted to meet the unique mentorship needs of each new program.
The professional expertise demanded by programs such as The Node (data science) and Ignite (social entrepreneurship) presented us with challenges sourcing alumni. In a broad outreach effort, my team consulted U.Va.’s Career Center and scoured LinkedIns to promote the program. Thanks to the hard work of mentorship coordinators and alumni alike, we finally hit our target. For Hustle and Spark, we simply blasted our Wahoowa network via MailChimp.
Given the adjustment process and specialized nature of new programs, my team fully expected satisfaction ratings to dip a bit this semester.
A look at some of the feedback
Perceived average experience and likelihood of continuation ratings declined slightly from last semester. My team more or less predicted this, chalking it up to HackCville “growing pains” of sorts. It takes at least a semester to understand the mentorship needs of a given new program (or so we thought).
What surprised us, however, is the student feedback ratings broken down by program:
Unsurprisingly, Hustle, HackCville’s original program, enjoyed the highest overall ratings. The second-highest ratings, though, came in for The Node, which is a new and highly specialized program. My team thought that given the tangible skills gap between students and alumni, in tandem with The Node’s status as a “beta program,” would lead to lower ratings. However, it seems as though the sheer experience of alumni more than compensated for the uncertainty of a new program.
While we’re quite proud of these numbers, there is absolutely room for improvement in all of the programs, especially Spark and Ignite. I outline some potential remedies below.
What we learned
We received a ton of valuable feedback from mentees and mentors alike. Below are some excerpts that reflect both the positive aspects of the program and those that can be improved upon.
“I was definitely matched with someone that I can help a lot. She was extremely proactive about reaching out to me and responding promptly, which I really appreciated. … I definitely plan to keep in touch with her and I’m excited to see how she grows/develops over the next few years – she’s certainly super bright and has a lot going for her!” – Alumni participant
“My mentor was an absolute gem. She and I clicked instantly, and have kept in touch on a weekly basis since our intro. I’m going to be interning in [her city] this summer, and we’re planning to grab coffee often!” – Student participant
“It was great having an opportunity to engage with someone as bright and inquisitive as [my mentee]. I enjoyed asking and answering questions, talking about interests and aspirations.” – Alumni participant
“By the end of the semester, I realized my mentor had opened me up to a world that I didn’t even realize existed. While I didn’t enter the program expecting to be fed connections, my mentor introduced me to a ton of people in my future industry that have helped me find my footing. Better yet, I’ve made a great friend out of [my mentor], too.” – Student participant
“I think it was great, but in the 2nd half of the semester, I forgot to reach out. It would be nice to get some reminder emails with tips like what part of the semester it is (e.g. not to schedule anything over fall break, or maybe fall break is a good time to meet) or some ideas of guidance that students are looking for.” – Alumni participant
“After the initial introduction email, I became bogged down in all the other stuff I had going on and stopped being proactive about reaching out to my mentor. Going forward, I’d like a bit more guidance in that domain.” – Student participant
“Ideally I think the students should come into the program with some sort of goal that they would like help with, whether that be finding an internship or working on a personal project or whatever. That goal should be clearly articulated by the mentee in their application and used for mentor matching. This would have given the meetings more purpose and drive.” – Alumni participant
“Maybe a more clear definition of the relationship would have helped. I appreciate the flexibility, but sometimes it felt like our conversations didn’t have a clear focus.” – Student participant
Looking to this semester
All things considered, we received two common threads of constructive feedback from students and alumni:
1) Ensure that students have more direction when entering correspondences with alumni.
2) Provide more general structure to the program.
Accordingly, we will be making a few important changes to the mentorship program this coming semester.
Simplifying the matching process
My team is working with the data science folks from The Node to overhaul our matching surveys. In our new Typeforms, we will ask students and alumni a series of interest and demographic questions accompanied by sliding scales that denote how important it is to be matched on those bases. We’re including gender, city, industry, job position, project advice, networking, life guidance, and internship help as potential criteria for matching. It will now be easy, for example, to match a Charlottesville-based female programmer with a student who is seeking those qualities in a mentor. Using these metrics, an algorithm will winnow down the field of potential mentors to each mentee. We’ll then hand-match pairs as before. This process will allow us to pinpoint exactly what students and alumni want out of a relationship, and match them accordingly. We’ll also include our reasoning behind the match in our intro emails to help students and alumni hit the ground running.
We’ll be making the mentorship program opt-in for all programs this coming semester, with strong encouragement to students in the entrepreneurship programs (Hustle, Spark, Ignite). This will allow students to choose to be mentored if they have a clear idea of what they want out of the relationship. Conversely, it will allow students who feel like they lack direction to opt-out for the time being. We want to give students the choice of receiving mentorship depending on how comfortable they feel engaging with an expert in the field of their program. Ideally, this will lead to a more engaged and goal-oriented base of mentees.
Structured weekly emails
We will send out weekly contact reminders to students to keep the mentorship flame burning all semester. These missives will be rather simple, and include tips on relationship upkeep, feedback from mentors, and article links for discussion fodder. The thinking is to keep mentorship at the forefront of everyone’s minds through the remainder of the year. In addition to a once-per-month correspondence requirement, these reminders will allow for a more steady stream of contact between mentee and mentor.
Different levels of mentorship
This past fall, we decided to test out unstructured peer-to-peer mentorship with our web development program, Wireframe. My team simply matched like pairs of students and left the rest up to them. Then, something interesting happened — some pairs dissipated over time, but some remained together without any obligation. A simple matching pair-up provided students with the option to work with a peer if they wanted to, and this coming semester, we hope to explore more levels of mentorship intensity and frequency.
In addition to further testing peer-to-peer, we will experiment with group project mentorship for certain programs this coming semester. Mentors will work with small teams of students on specific goals and help them realize the vision of their project. Not only will this ease the burden of sourcing alumni mentors, but it will also establish clearer expectations for both students and alumni. Students will work through milestones and solicit mentor guidance along the way. This timeline-focused mentorship will add structure to the program.
This past semester incited a lot of discussion amongst my team regarding what mentorship aims to do. We’re trying to build a program that thoroughly engages students and alumni alike, and enables both mentors and mentees to get exactly what they want out of the relationship. We hope that the above changes will help realize this goal.
On a final note, I want to thank all of the alumni and students who have helped this program get off the ground. Your continued excitement and feedback keep HackCville mentorship chugging along, and we couldn’t ask for any more. I look forward to improving this program as much as possible in my last semester on the job.