Kirk Clear

Two months ago, Shawn Springer, who graduated from UMUC last August with a business administration degree, played in a golf tournament with mentor and friend Kirk Clear.

The two were matched through the university's Mentor Program, which connects students and alumni virtually. Still, Clear, who earned a BS in Communications with a journalism emphasis from UMUC in 2003 and subsequently served as UMUC's Alumni Association president from 2007 to 2008, tries to meet mentees in person, when possible.

On this occasion, unknown to Springer, Clear had also invited the senior vice president of a publicly traded corporation to join their team. When the SVP learned that Springer is an active-duty U.S. Marine hoping to transition to the corporate world after completing his service, he invited Springer to connect with him on LinkedIn and said he would be glad to help when Springer was ready to make the change.

"I remain in contact with that gentleman to this day," Springer said.

When asked, Springer explained that it's hard to quantify the benefits he has received from Clear's mentorship. "Every time we talk, eat lunch, or play golf, I learn something new from Kirk," he said. "As a result I become a more well-rounded business professional."

Mentor Program Coordinator Rachel Shannon said Clear is one of nearly 650 alumni who have signed up to mentor alumni and students. Since the program debuted last May after launching as a pilot program in September 2014, more than 500 connections between alumni mentors and student and alumni mentees have taken place.

"We are on target to do 2,000 connections this year," said Nikki Sandoval, UMUC associate vice president of Career and Alumni Services.

The mentor partnership agreement that participants sign helps set expectations from the start. Among other things, it lays out when the relationship will start and end and how mentors and mentees will be in contact, according to Shannon.

At a minimum, mentors and mentees are asked to commit to monthly conversations over a six-month period. Some, particularly those who live in the same geographic region, get together more often than the agreement requires. They might meet for coffee, or mentees might shadow mentors at work.

When Clear learned that mentee and New Mexico resident Jeff Gieras was returning from deployment overseas and had a layover at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, he drove to the airport and met Gieras for dinner. "It makes things better when you've had a mentorship from a distance, and you're finally able to connect [in person]," Clear said.

That kind of alumni initiative is at the core of the Mentor Program's early success, Sandoval said. "We have a lot of alumni reaching out to us and raising their hand, wanting to be engaged. They want to connect and give back to their alma mater."

Previously, UMUC had a variety of smaller-scale mentorship programs, often organized by degree program. This new mentor program brings those different efforts together, expands on them, and adopts a proactive posture.

For instance, in response to mentor-mentee feedback, Shannon turned on a capability in the program software that allows would-be-mentors to connect directly with mentees. Beforehand, mentees had to initiate the connection. "We had seen that some students and alumni are a little hesitant or intimidated when it comes to reaching out to mentors for help," Shannon said.

And because some mentor program participants have told university staff they seek answers to a variety of more directed questions, UMUC met the demand with an online speed-networking styled event on January 28.

The new Mentor Program also particularly benefits overseas students who want to transition from the military to civilian roles and are seeking advice from mentors who have navigated that life change successfully.

"This is information the mentors wish someone had shared with them when they were students," Sandoval said.

An algorithm matches mentees with appropriate mentors based on profiles that they fill out. Mentees self-identifying as members of the U.S. Navy, for example, may find that the system will suggest mentors who are former Navy servicemembers. "The system guides them through that," Sandoval said.

And the system doesn't just play matchmaker and then step away. It regularly contacts both mentors and mentees to make sure that they have been in touch and met "milestones," such as setting goals together and maintaining contact.

"It's not just, here's a person who is a match, and you're on your own and kind of lost," Sandoval said.

Jess Mitchell, who graduated from UMUC in December 2000 with a degree in information systems management, noticed the Mentor Program on the university website when she was poking around eyeing graduate courses. The program caught her attention for its ability to connect her with IT security professionals, as well as the opportunity for her to encourage other women interested in the field. She has already mentored a couple of students.

"I have shared what a typical day at work is like for me, and I have shared resources for free information and experience in the IT security field," she said. "I've also offered advice on courses."

Mitchell recommends the program to other alumni, particularly because she didn't seek out mentorship as a student. "I can see where working with someone already involved professionally in my field of study could have been a benefit," she said. "I have found this mentoring program to be a relatively easy way to help UMUC students. It truly feels like paying it forward."

Springer said the Mentor Program adds value both for those who are already established career professionals and for those just getting started.

He recommends that others seeking mentors be highly selective when choosing a mentor. Ask university staff for assistance if the right mentor recommendations aren't surfacing. Take the mentor partnership agreement seriously. "You will never have a metric for success if you don't remember where you started," Springer said.

Understand that your goals may evolve. Be in touch with your mentor right away after the connection is brokered. Finally, he added, remember to listen to the mentor.

"Far too often we talk but don't listen to what other people are telling us," Springer said. "Remember that you enrolled in this program because you want to improve some aspect or aspects in your personal or professional situation, not because you want to be respected for what you have already accomplished."

Even when the relationship has run its course officially, mentees shouldn't let it end. Although the relationship term with Clear ended months ago, Springer said he remains in contact. The two still meet for lunch, and Clear is very responsive to his e-mails, calls, and text messages, Springer added.

"Bottom line, this program wasn't exclusively designed to build positive trust relationships. It was designed to build a lifetime of friendships," Springer said.

Clear, who as a member of the UMUC alumni board of directors has been involved in laying the groundwork for the Mentor Program, said he has enjoyed interacting with the three individuals he's mentored so far. "It's a great way to pay back what UMUC has done for you. It feels good to help."

He advises would-be mentors—including those on the fence about whether they are mentor material or able to balance mentoring with work—to go for it. "Go ahead and be a mentor. Put your name out there," Clear said.

"You can find a happy balance," he adds, noting that mentors can set limits on the number of mentees they interact with at a time. "Maybe there's someone looking for what you do. You never know until you put your name out there. There're always people looking for something."