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Transcript- Episode 97: The Key To A Successful Mentorship Program With Dr. Shannon LaCount Principal Product Manager at Mentor Collective Episode 97

Jul 4, 2023


00:00:00 Shannon

It is a way of the students being able to say, "This is how I'm feeling, this is what I need, this is what I'm asking for." And it's a way of hearing them and responding to it in an efficient and then ultimately effective way.

00:00:11 Shannon

So, it's not just, "We know these things about you, so we're forcing you into this program, we're offering you this program, and it's flexible enough for you to give your input and for us to adjust to you." And it's not just mentorship programs, that's any good program will do that, but that's definitely one of the things we focus on.

00:00:32 Christina

The workforce landscape is rapidly changing, and educators and their institutions need to keep up. Preparing students before they enter the workforce to make our communities and businesses stronger is at the core of getting an education.

00:00:44 Christina

But we need to understand how to change and adjust so that we can begin to project where things are headed before we even get there. So, how do we begin to predict the future?

00:00:55 Salvatrice

Hi, I'm Salvatrice Cummo, Vice President of Economic and Workforce Development at Pasadena City College, and host of this podcast.

00:01:03 Christina

And I'm Christina Barsi, producer of this podcast.

00:01:06 Salvatrice

And we are starting the conversation about the future of work. We'll explore topics like how education can partner with industry, how to be more equitable, and how to attain one of our highest goals; more internships and PCC students in the workforce.

00:01:20 Salvatrice

We at Pasadena City College want to lead the charge in closing the gap between what our students are learning, and what the demands of the workforce will be once they enter. This is a conversation that impacts all of us.

00:01:35 Christina

We believe change happens when we work together and it all starts with having a conversation. I'm Christina Barsi.

00:01:42 Salvatrice

And I'm Salvatrice Cummo, and this is the Future of Work.

00:01:48 Salvatrice

Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Future of Work Podcast, I am your host, Salvatrice Cummo. Today, we will learn about the importance of a mentor's role in higher education and how to get students excited about having a mentor. We will also learn about Mentor Collective, and how it helps its students in higher education institutions.

00:02:08 Salvatrice

With that being said, we are excited to welcome Dr. Shannon LaCount, Principal Product Manager at Mentor Collective.

00:02:17 Salvatrice

A collective of 160 plus colleges and university partners committed to closing the equity gaps, improving education rates, and increasing social mobility. With over 15 years of experience in higher education, we are absolutely thrilled to have her and talk about all things mentorship. Dr. LaCount, how are you?

00:02:41 Shannon

I am well, thank you.

00:02:42 Salvatrice

Very good, thank you for joining me on this wonderful morning. We came across Mentor Collective a while back ago, but then thinking about how we could be better partners with Mentor Collective, I thought, you know what, we ought to have you on the podcast.

00:02:58 Shannon

That's very kind of you, and I'm very happy to be here.

00:03:00 Salvatrice

Because it's important. It's really important, and I'm very thrilled about the work that you're doing and just following what Mentor Collective is doing and all the things that my staff are talking about and my colleagues are talking about. So, I'm super excited to dive in.

00:03:12 Salvatrice

Well, I always like to ask what got you here as my first question, but I'm going to shift it just a little bit as to why it's important. So, with over 15 years experience as an educator in higher education, why is education so important to you?

00:03:32 Shannon

It's kind of you to ask, and I have to give you my personal answer to that question. I'm a first generation student, I grew up in a rural setting in a working class environment. But I liked school and I was good at school, and I saw it as an open-ended opportunity and have made a career out of it.

00:03:49 Shannon

I've been in higher ED now for all of the two thousands, a little bit before that. One of the reasons I made it a career is I want students like myself to also see the benefits of higher education, education in general. So, I've been really dedicated in a bunch of different positions to focus on education.

00:04:08 Salvatrice

Fantastic. And throughout your career, you have had a chance, you just mentioned, to be a student, to be a professor, to be an administrator, lots of different roles within your career in education. What shaped your perception of the higher education system and any gaps that you saw that needed to be corrected immediately?

00:04:31 Shannon

So, as I said, I was a first generation student. I also was a first generation assistant professor. And that made me a bit of an outsider in several ways. I had a perspective on education, I had a perspective on the world that was different than people who had been multi-generational academics. Which a lot of my classmates when I was a student and then a lot of my colleagues as a professor were.

00:04:53 Shannon

And that really made me interested. That's why I went on to get my advanced degree in education. I like to think about how students learn, how students navigate the systems on campus, how they navigate that hidden curriculum, how we can help students feel more comfortable, feel like they belong on campus, find their outcomes and their goals within whatever campus and whatever program they choose to go in.

00:05:19 Shannon

I'm a huge fan of education, but higher ED unfortunately, does expect assimilation of students who don't come from academic families, and that can be really excluding and it can be really isolating.

00:05:30 Shannon

So, we have to welcome students from multiple backgrounds because it's the right thing to do. We also have to welcome students from multiple backgrounds because we have to keep enrollment. We have to keep our doors open.

00:05:41 Shannon

But I think higher ED in general needs to find ways of adjusting for students and learning from those students who are coming in from different backgrounds and being flexible once they arrive. And helping students see their future selves on campus - something I don't really feel like happened to me right away when I was in college. That can go a long way. And that's obviously what mentorship programs and the topic of today helps students do.

00:06:06 Salvatrice

I'm really glad you brought that up about first gen experience and lens, and even within the career of higher education is very different. Do you feel that you've maybe approached certain situations, problems, opportunities very differently than maybe some of your other colleagues who are multi-generational, higher ED professionals?

00:06:27 Shannon

For sure I have. And to take it away from me in general, there are a lot of programs for students who come from low socioeconomic status homes or first generation college students, and they're often spoken about in a deficit model. Like here come these students and here are all the ways that they might fail, and that is really unfair.

00:06:48 Salvatrice

That's a great point. That's a really good point.

00:06:51 Shannon

So, I try to talk about all populations of students, whoever we're focusing on without that deficit model. And to say, "This defines how you have any unique perspective. This defines something who doesn't have that perspective can learn from you in an exchange of information back and forth." So, it's less about one group becoming like the other, but actually learning from each other and recognizing that there's value in the life experiences of these students.

00:07:14 Salvatrice

I love that. So, along that same vein about learning from each other and different perspectives, Mentor Collective, let's spend some time there for a minute. You've been there now for two years?

00:07:27 Shannon

A little over, yeah.

00:07:28 Salvatrice

A little over two years. So, tell us about Mentor Collective and its role within ... not only your experiences as a higher ED professional but its intentions, its mission, its vision for our students in higher education.

00:07:42 Shannon

So, Mentor Collective is a structured mentorship program that works in partnership with campuses or communities. It's mostly campuses and universities, and it's fully thought out. And what I mean by that is it starts with clear intentions and then has the data to back it up.

00:07:57 Shannon

So, it is not a plug and play, it is not like we have this program and you have to use it, but it works with campuses to say, "For whom do you want a mentorship program to exist? And why do you want, what are the intended outcomes for that group? Or what are we trying to change for that group and how will we know when we need to adjust what we're doing within the program?"

00:08:17 Shannon

It's an organized platform, so it provides technology to make things efficient and effective, but it also has a services team so that some of the operational things that really suck up the human resources on campus, we can take care of that part.

00:08:32 Shannon

But the secret sauce is really the human element. We are connecting people with people. We're connecting students with mentors. And I know we're going to talk about that I'm sure in a little bit. So, it's both personal and scalable because the technology helps it be more efficient. But the fact that there's a human element helps students find what they need.

00:08:51 Shannon

So, if you're a first generation student and you want to know what that experience has been for other people, we'll connect you in that way. If you're an adult student and you need to speak to someone who has had that life experience, we'll connect you in that way.

00:09:03 Shannon

So, the platform provides the framework for both personalization and an open invitation to as many people as we can include in the program.

00:09:12 Salvatrice

That's right. Thinking about my own experiences as a student, and maybe you probably felt the same, is the value of mentorship. I didn't understand the value of mentorship as a student and of course, it translated into my career and of course, there's a value in mentorship. And I have mentors all around me and I love it, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but I was taught the value of mentorship after.

00:09:40 Shannon


00:09:42 Salvatrice

Yes, so not during school, but after. So, how do we get or how does Mentor Collective get to our students? Or as a system, how do we portray the value? How does that resonate with our students and how does Mentor Collective do that? And then part two to that question would be, what might that look like in a setting?

00:10:03 Shannon

I'm with you. When I was in college, there is a professor who I definitely call a mentor now, I did not call a mentor at the time. I didn't realize that. This was someone who said a few things that resonated with me and she felt safe, and she felt like a person I could ask questions and navigate with the things I didn't understand with her.

00:10:22 Shannon

So, to answer your question directly how, is to provide structure. There are people who are raised in families (first generation or not) - who are raised in families where networking is part of what they do. Or they can reach out and they're going to use the free tools and all of the things that are out there for them. We often refer within our conversations, that's social capital. That's having connections with people.

00:10:46 Shannon

But I would say the majority of us are not comfortable with that or don't know how to network. We understand there's value in it, but we don't know where to get started, we don't know how to do that. So, a structured program, like a structured mentorship program, provides that connection, provides that structure in the beginning to teach what can then be carried on once there isn't a structured program in place.

00:11:05 Shannon

And there are a number of ways of structuring it. Often, this is one thing to confirm, is there are different models of mentorship, there's formal or hierarchical. I'm a professor, ushering a new teacher into the professorship. There's friendship models, there's mentee-initiated models where mentees are reaching out for someone because they're in a position that they want to see themselves in someday.

00:11:27 Shannon

The model that we focus on and the programs we work on are considered supportive accountability. It's someone who has said, "I am here for you in the ways that you need me to be here for you. I don't have all the answers, you don't necessarily want to be in my position later on like have my job or do whatever else. But I have been there and I have said yes to being available to when you need it."

00:11:49 Shannon

So, it's really low pressure. There's no hoops to jump through for the mentees, but it's that, "Whew, I have someone to ask this question that I don't know who to ask of." That's really the spirit behind the types of programs that we partner with campuses on.

00:12:04 Salvatrice

And how are the mentors selected? Because that's tricky too, and that's a huge element of the formula. How does that work with Mentor Collective?

00:12:13 Shannon

The mentor pool comes from the campus itself or the partner community we're working with, the population, the partner community. Typically, it's peers or near peers, who are recently graduated or just moved into the workforce, or in the case of transitioning from a certificate or a two-year to a four-year program, those would be considered near peers, or workforce mentors.

00:12:34 Shannon

Either alumni who are in the workforce or workforce and the programs that are sponsoring the mentorship program. We facilitate the process.

00:12:42 Shannon

So, we have ways of inviting the mentors, of sharing what the expectations of a supportive accountability type of program are, we provide the on-demand training, and then also matching. But the partner list and who they are, it's part of the community. So, it's not a false connection, it's connection that makes sense based on the goals of the program.

00:13:02 Shannon

Also, part of that matching - I say we match. Operationally, that can be a lot of work for anyone running a mentorship program. We use a survey and a matching algorithm where mentors and mentees self-identify through their various definitions of identity or affinity or experience. And the algorithm will weight what's most important to each mentee. And that's one of the ways it's personal. Everyone can participate, but it's unique based on their answers to those matching surveys.

00:13:29 Salvatrice

I love that, and I'm assuming there's a vetting process?

00:13:33 Shannon

Yeah, there can be. Many campuses will do that, but it happens in different ways. So, let's say a program is focusing on women in STEM majors, the mentors are all going to come from the STEM field. They're either upperclassmen or people who are working in the STEM field.

00:13:47 Shannon

But sometimes, there are other ways of vetting. Like some campuses will say we want peer mentors because there's power in peers. Peers can encourage other students in ways that faculty and staff and fully fledged adults can't. But we want some guardrails on whether that is GPA or whatever it might be.

00:14:07 Shannon

Because the matches are made based on what's important to the pair, it might not have to be the top academic people. People who have really high GPAs and success in the classroom, they're asked to be the TAs or to participate in research.

00:14:23 Shannon

And it's those in the middle who have had great life experiences or bad life experiences, and persisted through those, those sometimes are the best mentors. And we find that in matches up, like adults going back to school, love to be connected with other adults or someone who has a caregiving responsibility at home. Just want someone to talk through that.

00:14:43 Shannon

Like how do I get my coursework done and take care at the same time? There might be tips there from the mentor that we wouldn't expect.

00:14:50 Salvatrice

Oh that's beautiful. I love that so much. There's a lot there that may not get considered. When we take the traditional approach to mentors, we don't think about all those things that you just shared.

00:15:04 Shannon

Yeah, a lot of times when we talk to campuses, they'll already have mentorship programs in place and they're very specific, matching accounting majors with accounting majors. And that makes sense because that's how we organize ourselves on campuses and that's what we understand.

00:15:17 Shannon

To help students get excited about having a mentor, one of the ways that we accomplish that is again, letting mentors and mentees self-identify through affinity experience and matching them that way.

00:15:29 Shannon

If you think about how campuses are organized, we have guided pathways. We have courses and curriculum, we have apprenticeships and internships. These are all the best ways of taking care of skills and knowledge, the academic side of things.

00:15:42 Shannon

As a mentorship program, we don't need to handle advising or financial aid or any of those things, but we are a conduit to those. Because when a student who is a year or so ahead of you or even a couple of credits ahead of you says, "Oh yeah, I remember when that happened to me, and guess what office you go to? You go to the office of ..."

00:16:02 Shannon

So, this boosts what happens in all the support areas that campuses want students to take advantage of. It's that little nudge they need from someone who has been there before to take advantage of all of those resources that are there on campus that they may not have known of or had the confidence to go to.

00:16:20 Salvatrice

Got it. And speaking of not knowing and lack of confidence, also, we have to embed bad experiences. There might be students who have not had the most stellar experience with a mentor. I personally have had a mentor that wasn't the greatest experience, and we all do.

00:16:35 Salvatrice

How do we re-engage those students because we've shared value and we've told them that this is a beautiful way to navigate life. I'm just going to say that. It's just a beautiful way to navigate life when you have strong mentors around you. But if they've had those bad experience, how do we re-engage?

00:16:52 Shannon

So, I'm with you on that. There's no one in my life now, but I had a bad boss once. And I learned a ton from her because I know what not to do. So, those bad mentorships, we don't wish them on anyone, but they are something to learn from.

00:17:08 Shannon

Really helping students who maybe have had those bad experiences before, that's where the structure comes in because it informs students why they're being connected, what the intentions are. It's that, like I said, safe space. Someone raising their hand saying, "I'm here for you if you need me, but I'm not going to force interaction or I'm not going to make you jump through hoops to interact with me."

00:17:30 Shannon

In all of the literature and the zeitgeist of both higher ED and workplace is creating a sense of belonging. We need to feel like we matter, we need to feel like we have a sense of community. We need to feel heard and someone is there for us.

00:17:46 Shannon

And through the messaging, the invitations, most of our programs are opt-in. So, it's someone who's saying, "Yeah, I'm ready for this." This all fosters a sense of belonging, and we actually measure that early on. And that's part of the structure as well.

00:18:02 Shannon

We have an assessment plan in place and we can look early on; what is your academic self-efficacy? What is your sense of belonging? Are you having a positive relationship with your mentor? And if not, we have the ability to rematch or correct that negative experience and bring in a positive experience.

00:18:18 Shannon

So, it's structure, it's data collection in a way that lets you react in real time to the students and then it's doing all of the things that foster that sense of belonging to help them feel as part of the community and feel supported in the place they're at.

00:18:33 Salvatrice

For sure. As I'm hearing you say this, I'm thinking there's got to be newer trends or things that are happening within the capacity mentor world. I don't even know how to really say it. But the reason why I'm bringing up this question is because the landscape of higher education has changed dramatically in the last three years as it should.

00:18:53 Salvatrice

It really should because we should be ready for our students and our students being ready for us. And I learned that actually through one of my mentors . And when he said it, it really hit me, I thought, "Yeah, you're right," we've never said it that way or I've never said it that way, but to hear it and we practice it, we just don't say it out loud."

00:19:11 Salvatrice

So, having said that, I'm assuming that there's other approaches or other ways or any trends that you're seeing within this space about adapting to the newer landscape of higher education.

00:19:22 Salvatrice

And then I would also maybe ask, are there words of wisdom for us as higher ED professionals to be aware of and to keep an eye on in working with Mentor Collective, and seeing some of the partnerships and student and mentor relationships? Or is there anything that you would have any words of wisdom for us as we build?

00:19:46 Shannon

Yeah, it is listening to the student voice. We talk about that all the time in higher ED. There's lots of ways to get input from what faculty are seeing about students. There's all kinds of resources for what staff are seeing in students. We gather data, GPAs and all of the information ahead of time on students.

00:20:04 Shannon

We don't always listen to the students because most of the programs are peer or near peer. I don't want to discount the workforce type of mentors because that's a different type of near peer. It is a way of students being able to say, "This is how I'm feeling, this is what I need, this is what I'm asking for." And it's a way of hearing them and responding to it in an efficient and then ultimately, effective way.

00:20:27 Shannon

So, it's not just we know these things about you, so we're forcing you into this program. We're offering you this program and it's flexible enough for you to give your input and for us to adjust to you. And it's not just mentorship programs, that's any good program will do that, but that's definitely one of the things we focus on.

00:20:44 Salvatrice

Fantastic. I would not be doing my job well if I didn't ask you, if there's one thing that you would want our listener to understand about the topic at hand, about mentorship, about higher education, career path, about anything that we've shared today, what would it be?

00:21:02 Shannon

Yeah, I listened to a few episodes ahead of time because this is something I want to hear. Not just in preparation for being a guest, but you had Abby Schneier on recently, and she said many if not most jobs in the next 10 years don't exist today. And she said, so students should focus on core skills, I'm paraphrasing.

00:21:18 Shannon

And I agree with her, and I would also say focus on core skills. One of those being learning how to build social capital. Learning how to network and taking advantage of mentorship type of programs or other ways of engaging on campus or engaging in the classroom or engaging with people in the workforce that you're hoping to move into.

00:21:39 Shannon

Learning how to gather that social capital, it's universally applicable down the road, but again, it's easy to say, it's different for other people to do. So, that's why having programs in place that helps students take advantage of that and build that up in a structured way can really be powerful for them.

00:21:58 Salvatrice

Beautiful. Thank you so much for that Shannon. I'm also wondering if you could give an example of how schools are connecting students to the workforce and not just with peers?

00:22:13 Shannon

Yeah, we do focus on peers a lot because there's so much power in that relationship. But there's also a lot of power in relationship between students and seeing themselves in the workplace someday. Whether it's at the end of a certificate program, at the end of a two-year program or at the end of a graduate program. And we work with several colleges and universities who do have programs like that.

00:22:34 Shannon

They have the same goals as a peer program in that they do intend to care about how students are feeling like they belong on campus. Because if you feel like you belong on campus, you're more successful in the steps it takes to get to the workforce. But it also connects with someone who knows what it's like to apply for and get a job to transition into the workforce. And sometimes it's organized with alumni.

00:23:01 Shannon

So, it's people who have graduated from a specific program. We know Orange Coast in California has a program where it's just workforce. So, in the community or people who are connected to the campus, alumni are not, but are in the workforce, in the community will connect with students.

00:23:17 Shannon

And we get anecdotes like it was great to be supported, but they showed me best practices in LinkedIn for this industry, and how to use the tools that are available to me. Or they practiced an interview with me, or they just said what someone is looking for when we're hiring.

00:23:34 Shannon

There are similar programs in Green Bay and all over the country that we work with. But again, it is about helping students feel supported and feel like they belong. And then giving them that social capital to navigate the things that they're not learning in their classrooms. Not because the classrooms are failing, but because it's just different and outside skills.

00:23:54 Salvatrice

Sure, I'm really glad you mentioned that. There's something to be said about planting into an environment that you see yourself in or maybe that you don't see yourself in, but it's a strong possibility that you can. And that's I think what we're seeing across all populations of our students is underscoring that there is a strong possibility that you can be in that space, and that environment, and that position, and that fill in the blank, that's our role.

00:24:19 Shannon

Yeah, and giving someone a glimpse into what that could look like, it's powerful and motivating.

00:24:24 Salvatrice

Very powerful, thank you so much for sharing that.

00:24:28 Shannon

No problem.

00:24:29 Salvatrice

If we have listeners or some of our colleagues or professionals that are listening or students that would want to connect, what would be the best way to connect with you?

00:24:36 Shannon

Personally, I have a LinkedIn account. I'm Shannon LaCount. I'm also Or you could just go to to find out about the company and eventually, get to me personally if that's who you were looking for.

00:24:51 Salvatrice

Fantastic. This has been absolutely lovely, thank you so much. Thank you very, very much, appreciate your time. I look forward to working closer with Mentor Collective, I believe some of our staff is working very closely.

00:25:05 Shannon

Yeah, thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about something I really enjoy.

00:25:09 Salvatrice

You bet, thank you.

00:25:10 Shannon


00:25:14 Salvatrice

Thank you for listening to The Future of Work Podcast. Make sure you're subscribed on your favorite listening platform so you can easily get new episodes every Tuesday.

00:25:23 Salvatrice

You can reach out to us by clicking on the website link below in the show notes to collaborate, partner, or just chat about all things future of work. We'd love to connect with you. All of us here at the Future of Work and Pasadena City College, wish you safety and wellness.