Mentorship: How a simple conversation can help reduce student dropout rates

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It is your responsibility as the mentee to set out the terms of your mentoring relationship.
It is your responsibility as the mentee to set out the terms of your mentoring relationship.
10'000 Hours/Getty


One of the earliest mentions of mentorship is in Greek mythology and the story of Odysseus, who appointed his friend Mentor, the son of Alcimus, to look after his son Telemachus when he left for the Trojan War. The encouragement and practical advice that Mentor imparted resulted in his name being adopted in Latin, and subsequently in English, for someone who shares wisdom and knowledge with others.

Mentorship has proven to be a valuable tool to advance careers, strengthen engagement and up productivity.

In higher education contexts too, studies show that mentorship can help vulnerable students tremendously. While access to tertiary institutions has increased in South Africa, many students are under-prepared for what higher education entails, as a study published in the Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa shows. But if students can tap into the advice and experience of those who’ve walked the path before them, the picture shifts.

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“With the right mentors and a changed outlook, it is amazing how it can affect your mindset and ultimately your performance. For the first time, I could write tests without being terrified,” comments Lana van der Walt, a beneficiary of a mentorship programme at Milpark Education in Johannesburg.

While mentorship initiatives at higher education institutions have borne fruit, it has proven difficult to roll these out at scale, often because of cost. The institution has helped to solve this by involving past graduates who volunteer their time as mentors. Such volunteer mentors also come with the best qualifications possible – having literally walked the same path – they are also highly motivated to give back.

“I always thought I was the only person who had experienced failure,” says Sanda Komane, a former diploma in accounting graduate, who now volunteers as a mentor on the programme. She says that she felt strongly that her own struggles – and eventual triumph – would be valuable to share with those coming after her.

Having repeated the CTA (Certificate in the Theory of Accounting) twice, I always thought I was the only person who had experienced failure in my accounting journey and thought I’d give perspective to those on a similar path.

Komane is one of about 100 mentors currently signed on to the programme, which provides mentorship to almost 200 students. The kind of mentorship each student receives depends on their needs and can typically comprise weekly phone calls and emails. The mentorship programme is part of a highly supportive and interactive learning environment that strives to assist students.

“From the start, our thinking was to support students. We know from experience that success on the programme is not reliant on the students’ academic skills or competence but has a lot more to do with all the complexities of life that create the context in which learning happens, and the need to understand and design around that,” explains chief student experience officer Gareth Oliver.

The interventions have led to improved motivation, lower dropout rates and greater momentum in the community.

“In essence, we get to the point where we know students have issues before they do. It helps to know you are not alone.”

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According to a US nonprofit mentorship organisation called Mentor, mentoring shows young people that somebody cares about them, ensures they are not alone in dealing with their everyday issues and assures them that they matter. “Research confirms that quality mentoring relationships have powerful positive effects on young people in a variety of personal, academic and professional situations,” the organisation claims.

The pressure on students can be intense and many struggle with a fear of failure. Many of the CA Connect students are working full-time and must fit in 40 hours of study into a normal working week. Some of them are single mothers or have family responsibilities, and many have failed similar courses at other institutions and enrol on the programmes when their confidence is low, and their self-doubt is sky-high.

Paveshan Moodley alludes to this when he talks of his own journey:

It was more of a mental battle than an academic one at many times, since the battle is won or lost through staying positive and keeping on. Most people tend to give up too early on themselves since the marks often start off quite low before we get to a pass, and failure mounts before we can get to success. One needs lecturers and a peer community who reduce this battle.

And as the country battles to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the cost-of-living crisis biting, this is more important than ever before. Online crowdfunding platform Feenix’s second annual Insights and Learning Report reveals that 43% of university students say they need mental health services but can’t access them. This is up from 33% in 2020.

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A mentor can help students manage stress and find ways to plan better and redirect them to other resources for additional help if necessary. It can be as simple as a telephonic conversation before a big exam or some guidelines to help students work on a study schedule. For Bessie Nyatsanza, the informal chats with a student mentor provided vital support during her accounting studies. “Those sessions were one of my key game changers to keep going through the year,” she recalls.

When it comes to interventions for students, mentorship can be the game changer and one way to reduce dropout rates and improve higher education for the South African youth.

Botha is a freelance writer for Milpark Education, one of the first private providers of business education in South Africa

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