College mentoring programs traditionally pair students with professional mentors who assist with academic and personal growth. Trey Varner, a senior aviation student from Russell, is modifying this concept as he develops the Wildcat Mentor Program at the Kansas State University Polytechnic campus.
His approach focuses on student-to-student mentorship where experienced aviation students are matched with new students.
Varner's vision for the student-led program evolved when he recognized students needed a lifeline to learn more about their degree program. Specifically, he wanted to help students enrolled in the aviation program. By pairing new students with upperclassmen, Varner predicts those individuals will be more successful academically and socially. In turn, mentors will develop better leadership and interactive skills.
"When I came to K-State, I would have greatly benefited from a program like this," Varner said.
He introduced the concept to Julie Rowe, who serves as the campus diversity, inclusion and access coordinator. Rowe recognized the mentorship program as a valuable resource for student success and retention. She agreed to serve as an advisor, providing insight about university structure, policies and goals.
"Getting an initiative off the ground provides many opportunities to learn how the world works," Rowe said. "My job is to help Trey figure out how to turn a passion/idea into reality."
Together Rowe and Varner are creating a mentor handbook, recruiting mentors and facilitating training sessions. At least 10 students have agreed to serve as mentors and will assist with a soft rollout during the spring 2021 semester. The Wildcat Mentor Program is projected to be fully operational in the 2021-2022 academic year.
Program goals are twofold. New students will be matched with experienced students for academic, social and career guidance. In addition, social events sponsored by the program will help build a sense of community for the entire campus. The program will also help students set themselves apart when they are ready to enter the aviation industry.
"Leadership and community service are both important to companies hiring our graduates," Rowe said. "Students who have been mentors can speak to those attributes."
According to the Wildcat Mentor Program handbook, a mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. Mentors are expected to provide wisdom, technical knowledge, assistance, resources, support, empathy and respect. Students will be taught critical skills, including how to effectively instruct, inspire and critique. They will also learn the importance of managing risks and establishing campus and industry relationships. Overall, a quality mentor will help new students understand how their ambitions fit into education, life and career choices.
Rowe noted mentorship programs are well researched and proven to be successful.
"The university is committed to providing as many resources as possible to help students succeed," she said. "Mentorship is one of those resources. There is nothing like peer-to-peer mentorship."
Initially, mentorship training will be facilitated by Rowe and Varner. Ongoing sessions will focus on identifying quality mentoring skills, developing critical competencies through group exercises and introducing students to industry partners. Additionally, several students will be identified to manage the program after Varner graduates.
Varner aspires to work for a corporate or private company as a professional pilot. He says the most influential mentor in his life was his grandfather.
"He showed me what it was like to be a strong and confident worker, how to be the best and to excel at anything I put my mind to," Varner said. "But he always made sure to have time to have a little fun and excitement in his life."
What advice would Varner give incoming students? “Study, study, study! But also make sure to take time for yourself," he said. "Aviation is tough and can be taxing on the mind, so don't overdo it."
Varner said he hopes the Wildcat Mentor Program will be enhanced over the years with mentees advancing to mentors. He also trusts his ultimate goal will be achieved: creating student-to-student relationships that will contribute to student retention, graduation and successful entry into the aviation industry.