Honors College Launches Mentoring Cohorts: Q&A with Dean Folds-Bennett

By Elizabeth Roberts ‘14

After celebrating our 50th year anniversary last year, the Honors College is excited to launch a new initiative for students and faculty members: mentoring cohorts, a thematic approach to Honors advising. With the success of piloted cohorts, such as the International Scholars Program, Honors Program in Business, and the Entrepreneurship Living-Learning Community (ELLC), Trisha Folds-Bennett, Dean of the Honors College, wanted to extend the opportunity to participate in thematic mentoring cohorts to more Honors College students. 

As part of the long-standing Honors College advising model, all students are assigned a dedicated faculty advisor who provides mentorship across their four years at the College. Mentoring cohorts take that personalized approach to academic advising one step further. 

I caught up with Dr. Folds-Bennett this summer to learn more about this initiative and ask some of the questions we’ve been hearing from students in the Honors College Class of 2022, which is the first class where all students had the option to sign up for a mentoring cohort.

What are mentoring cohorts?

Mentoring cohorts create smaller networks of students and faculty working and learning together under a theme. These groups help students think about long-term goals, share experiences and opportunities with each other, and support one another as they make decisions through their time in college. Some are academically-focused while others are more professionally-focused. The faculty member who leads the cohort of 25-30 students decides on a theme and an approach within the boundaries of being an interdisciplinary advising group. The cohorts provide a structure for a strong faculty-student relationship as well as opportunities for students to work on professional goals, dive deeper into the analysis of issues (e.g. sustainability, food insecurity, and impact entrepreneurship), and be part of a smaller, supportive peer group.

Professor Bryan Ganaway directs the International Scholars Program. He is pictured here in Estonia with Alia Kapasi, Sydney Moreano, and Sydney Zazzaro

Why does the Honors College offer mentoring cohorts?

We believe that having a faculty member develop a long-term relationship with students is important to success while in college and following graduation. There is academic research (see a list of articles below) that supports this belief. Mentoring cohorts offer additional programming to complement the relationship faculty members develop with students. Mentoring cohorts also provide flexibility and autonomy to our students who want to explore an issue or a topic outside of their academic major.

This initiative is a significant commitment of time from faculty and the campus community, which, for me, shows how much our campus is devoted to the individual student. We wouldn’t be able to offer these opportunities to students without partnerships with Student Affairs, the School of Business, the School of Languages, Cultures, and World Affairs, the Office of Residential Life, the Higdon Leadership Center, the Sustainability Literacy program, and our Honors Faculty Fellows who dedicate time and effort to these cohorts.

Do other Honors Programs offer these cohorts?

One of the strengths of Honors programs and Honors colleges is that they offer ways to engage with faculty and peers, promoting lifelong learning and intellectual involvement. We developed this approach to advising with that in mind, but no, we aren’t aware of another program doing it in this particular way.

Do they replace the Honors advisor that all Honors students are assigned?

I’ve found that it’s helpful to think about advising at a larger scale. All Honors students are part of an advising cohort directed by a faculty member. Mentoring cohorts are thematic versions of our more general advising cohorts. All Honors students, regardless of whether they opt to participate in a mentoring cohort, are assigned an Honors faculty advisor who meets with them individually each semester. For students in a mentoring cohort, though, that faculty advisor is associated with their mentoring cohort.

Some incoming students are worried about taking on too much in their first year of college. What are the expectations of participating in a cohort?

Each mentoring cohort has slightly different expectations and opportunities. Generally, though, students will participate in an activity or gathering with their cohort once a month. Mentoring cohorts are designed with first-year students in mind to help them transition to the college academic and social environment. Cohort leaders plan different activities for the entire cohort to engage in together, such as attending a lecture, reading and discussing a book together, eating dinner with professionals in the community, or participating in a community or on-campus service project. In addition to this, cohort leaders meet with students individually at least once a semester for advising. A few of the mentoring cohorts have a curricular, travel, and/or residential component, which is discussed with students before they apply for the cohorts.

What spurred this new approach to Honors academic advising?

Our advising approach is constantly evolving in response to observations we make and feedback we receive from students. In recent years, for example, we’ve moved toward having more Faculty Fellows serving with the Honors College so that they can guide a group of students through their four years on campus. Our advising model is interdisciplinary, which mirrors our Honors College approach as a whole. An interdisciplinary approach to advising ensures that if a student changes their major, they have a constant and consistent relationship with a faculty member on campus. This becomes so important when students need recommendation letters from a professor who really knows them for applications to graduate programs, fellowships, and even jobs. We wanted to build on the momentum of our Honors advising approach with additional co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities for a high-impact model that, again, focuses on our students.

Professor Lancie Affonso (second from right) directs the Entrepreneurship Living Learning Community (ELLC). He is pictured here in the Beatty Center with Blaine Billings, Will McEwen, and Leanna Conti.

How do the mentoring cohorts support the mission and vision of CofC Honors?

One of the core values of the Honors College is to get to know each and every student in Honors well – their interests, goals, and talents. As the Honors College grows, mentoring cohorts allow us to continue engaging each student at an academic, professional, and personal level. Mentoring cohorts provide students with a support system and a context for developing and achieving post-graduation plans. They are also an intentional way for students to benefit from and contribute to the community of the Honors College, which is at the core of our mission and vision.

Is there research that shows the impact faculty mentoring and/or a cohort can have on college students?

There are certainly articles about the impact of a faculty relationship on student development in college, particularly on post-graduation success.  We are constantly looking to best practices to inform the opportunities we offer students, and this is no different.

You can read more about the different mentoring cohorts currently offered on our website, and check out the articles below for research on the impact of faculty mentoring.

“Relationships Are Central to the Student Experience. Can Colleges Engineer Them?” by Beckie Supiano in The Chronicle of Higher Education

“A Caring Professor May Be Key in How a Graduate Thrives” by Scott Carlson in The Chronicle of Higher Education

“Life in College Matters for Life After College” by Julie Ray and Stephanie Kafka from Gallup

“How to Measure a College’s Value” by Frank Bruni in The New York Times

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