By Robert Stephens | Photos 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.