Inside the new mentorship program that’s proliferating the powerful partnerships between Rollins alumni and students.
Photo by Scott Cook
Mo Coffey ’08 had never done this before. She’d been many things—a business owner, a consultant, a wife, a friend—but “mentor” was entirely new territory. Coffey had been chosen last fall to be among the first participants in the Career Champions Mentor Program, a fledgling mentorship initiative in which Rollins graduates provide current students guidance and glimpses into future meaningful lives and productive careers. Coffey was paired with Isaac James ’19, a junior transfer student majoring in public policy and political economy. After an introductory email, neither knew exactly what to expect.
“I considered what I might bring to the table,” says Coffey, “like help with class selection, a supportive voice, some life lessons.”
But then James turned the table on Coffey. As she says, “He changed my life.”
That’s the mentor talking. The woman who directs the Fellowship for Emerging Leaders in Public Service at NYU and consults major organizations from her Manhattan office. Yet it’s James who has become her role model.
Through weekly emails and occasional phone calls, Coffey gradually learned James’ story. He grew up as a Sudanese refugee in Kenya, doing all he could as a young boy to take care of his family. Along the way, he discovered that education is the best way to improve lives—not just his own.
“It isn’t just his story that changed me,” says Coffey. “It’s his character. He’s overcome more in his young life than we can fathom, and he’s doing it with grace and humility that are beyond his years. I’ve learned as much from mentoring Isaac as I have from anything else I’ve ever been a part of.”
It’s a two-way street. “She’s become my role model too,” says James.
This is what Cassie Burns ’09, assistant director of alumni career engagement at Rollins’ Center for Career & Life Planning (CCLP), imagined when she began researching the optimum way to professionally pair alumni and students. As she laid the foundation for Career Champions, Burns interviewed student organizations, met with focus groups, and delved into research, including a Gallup study that said the odds of thriving in all areas of well-being are nearly twice as high among students who have mentors.
“It seems like common sense for any college,” says Burns. “But only some institutions can do it well. The college has to be as relational as it is educational. That’s what Rollins is all about.”
By all accounts, Rollins is doing it very well. In fact, of the 35 mentor-mentee pairs who participated in the pilot program this past spring, 100 percent of alumni said they would consider recommending the program to a peer and 96 percent of students said they would recommend Career Champions to a classmate. The feedback has been so positive that CCLP will ramp up the program to include up to 50 mentor-mentee matches in 2018–19.
While impressive, numbers like these just reinforce the real power behind the program. Like the soccer-playing molecular biology student who was partnered with a soccer-playing surgeon. Or the student who discovered she was living in the exact same dorm room that her mentor had as an undergrad. The connections have ranged from Manhattan to Madagascar and are all anchored by shared experiences at Rollins. Burns and Rollins’ Office of Alumni Engagement use so much detail to match each mentor and mentee that these kinds of connections are not only common, they’re also more scientific than serendipitous.
Photo by Scott Cook
When they connected during the fall of his junior year, Isaac James ’19 didn’t ask Mo Coffey ’08 for much. “I don’t think he wanted to bother me,” says Coffey. Help is not something James readily asked for as a young Sudanese refugee growing up in Kenya or as a grateful ex-refugee in Memphis or as a transfer student at Rollins. It took one conversation with Coffey for James to realize that he had a trusted confidant who could help him figure out the next steps in his life and career. “Isaac has become like family to my husband and me,” says Coffey. Someday, he might even become a colleague.
Photo by Scott Cook
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As college students we shouldn’t pretend to have everything figured out. People like Mo are equipped to provide guidance—it isn’t a sign of weakness to admit you need it.
It’s OK to take time off. As a rising senior, I completed a fellowship at the University of Michigan and had a traditional path in mind—finish my degree at Rollins and go straight to graduate school. Mo advised me to take some time off first, to clear my thoughts. I never expected that kind of advice, not just about my career but about life.
Serving others is a great way to grow. Mo invested in me and believed in me. She was never too busy to have a conversation. I look at where she is in her career, and yet her greatest accomplishment is how she takes the time to impact others. I’ll always remember that.
The value of Rollins relationships cannot be overstated. Most students don’t want to take advice from parents. To have a trusted adult means a lot, though. Even here in New York, I’ve seen how Rollins alumni go above and beyond to help each other. The formalized mentoring program makes it easier to establish those bonds.
I’m more hopeful for the future. I truly believe Isaac will lead a country someday—if that’s what he wants to do. To see what he’s overcome, his resilience, and to have no bitterness, it makes me want to approach life with grace and authenticity. There are others like him. They just need someone to create space for them to advocate for themselves.
Students need to enjoy being 20 years old. It’s good to have goals, but motivated people like Isaac also need to slow down. Go to movies. Play intramural sports. Take classes just because they sound interesting. Don’t rush your pursuit.
Photo by Scott Cook
This might sound familiar to seniors nearing the finish line. Kat Weiss ’18 thought she kinda, maybe knew what she wanted to do after graduation in spring 2018. During her time at Rollins, Weiss had studied community development in Tanzania and tutored students in Botswana. “But I wasn’t sure what step to take next,” says Weiss. She’d thought about the Peace Corps but wanted to talk with someone who had walked a similar path as hers. Enter Chris Robinson ’07. His transition from Rollins to the world a decade earlier had born an uncanny resemblance to Weiss’ present course. He would provide real-life perspective (and contacts).
Getting honest answers. Chris said he wasn’t sure about what to do after graduating either. So he told me everything he wished he’d known back then. He could have said, “Yeah, you should apply for the Peace Corps.” But instead he admitted it isn’t for everyone. He flat-out said, “Don’t go if your purpose is to escape or to feel good about what you’re doing.” His honesty was a turning point for me.
The value of a network. Chris knew that his service as a male in Jamaica was different than mine would be as a female teaching in Madagascar. So he put me in touch with former Peace Corps volunteers, including women. If it hadn’t been for his network, I’m not sure all of my questions would have been answered.
Seeing into the future. I have a good idea of the types of opportunities that are available after serving in the Peace Corps. Being able to see that far down the road has eased a lot of my uncertainties.
Getting out of the daily grind. We all run the risk of falling into a groove and becoming micro-focused on our work. For me, it was healthy to get into another person’s mindset, to see the world through Kat’s eyes. The bigger picture is easy to miss in our day-to-day work.
It expanded both of our networks. Over the years, I’ve learned that relationships are capital. It made sense to share that capital with Kat, which makes our network of colleagues wider and stronger. And hey, you never know where she’ll be in five years. Maybe we’ll help each other down the road.
The satisfaction of helping someone. My career path was unclear when I graduated, so I could relate to the thoughts Kat was combing through. Opportunities might not be handed to you, so you need more than a degree. I’d like to think I would have used a mentoring program like this if it had been available when I was at Rollins.
Photo by Scott Cook
Really, what are the chances? Mariam Tabrez ’18, a soon-to-be Rollins graduate, says in her Career Champions application that she wants to follow up her political science and psychology studies by going to law school in New York. What kind of law? That’s anybody’s guess. It just so happens that a Rollins graduate, George Sciarrino ’07, is a member of the New York City Bar Fashion Law Committee. Even he admits, “Rollins is known for a lot of great things, but fashion law in New York City isn’t the first one that comes to mind.” Thanks to his guidance, and the matchmaking of Career Champions, that might be about to change.
Photo by Scott Cook
I found a focus. I had questions about law school, but no one close to me could answer them. In fact, before I was paired with George, I’d never mentioned fashion law as a specific interest. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d be a law student with vague plans—and I don’t like vague plans.
You never know where a little direction will lead. George suggested I read a specific book, and I referenced that book when I wrote my personal statement in applying to law school. I’m sure it was a significant factor in earning the scholarship from New York School of Law.
It’s worth the time. My senior year was so busy that I wasn’t inclined to reach out and make something happen with an alumni group. It would have seemed like a shot in the dark. The Career Champions Mentor Program made the connection for me, and it’s a connection that got me excited about my future.
The reward of paying it forward. When I graduated from Rollins, I didn’t know about the niche practice of fashion law. And I never would have known about it had it not been for the mentoring of a professor in law school who had gone to Parsons like me. I enjoyed sharing that same kind of guidance with Mariam.
It doesn’t take much to make a big difference. We might shy away from getting involved because of the time required or thinking we don’t have much to offer. But the impact of a mentor far surpasses whatever you think you can put into it.
The strength of the Rollins community. This program reminded me of orientation before my freshman year, when everyone was so welcoming and available with materials to help me excel. The same kind of personal commitment and relational focus transcends beyond the campus. I’m proud to say I went to Rollins.
Rollins alumni have more avenues than ever before to share their expertise and prepare students for post-graduate success.
The success of Career Champions this past spring has not only solidified that program’s permanent place it’s also spawn a number of additional initiatives aimed at forging powerful alumni-student partnerships. The Center for Career and Life Planning (CCLP) has already launched the Chat with a Champ program, which allows alumni to share industry insights and career expertise with students through “flash mentoring.” These brief interactions facilitated through panels, networking events, and informational interviews create the potential for lasting professional connections. CCLP will also pilot a Day with a Champ shadowing program this year and will unveil a Champion in Residence program in the renovated Mills center next fall.
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