Jessica Pesce

Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at Harvard Graduate School of Education

ISO … a Peer Mentor

Full vitae peer advising

Image: iStock

I'm an academic administrator in my mid-30s. I sit on multiple alumni boards for my almae matres (yes, that pluralization is correct — I served some time as a high-school Latin teacher). I network my butt off at higher-ed leadership events, conferences, and meetings. I serve as a formal mentor to undergraduate and graduate students. And I have amazing mentors of my own — women who have had enormously successful careers in higher education and are now in their 50s and 60s.

But one thing I can't find? Other people like me who are midcareer professionals in their 30s. Where are all the colleagues with whom I could discuss issues we are both facing at this stage of our careers? Because they’re certainly not showing up at the alumni events, board meetings, and conferences I attend.

I'm not writing this to criticize my age group. Quite the opposite: What I'm looking for are midcareer professionals in higher education who can serve as peer mentors. I need them, and I need to know how to find them.

Research shows alumni volunteering rates relate to life cycle, age, and gender, with participation dropping off for alumni in their late 20s through 40s. I see the same age gap at meetings and conferences I attend. A key reason: Many people in their late 20s through 40s are raising families. I don't have kids yet, so some people will say I don’t understand. But if people in their 30s and 40s aren't attending conferences as much, aren't going to networking events, and aren't serving as mentors, institutions lose out on both alumni engagement and employee engagement. Higher ed as a whole loses out, and professionals themselves lose out. We have no one to look to for peer guidance and mutual support.

Sure, my fantastic mentors in their 50s and 60s can talk about being in my position 30-plus years ago. Sure, they can help connect me to colleagues at other institutions in the area. But academics over 50 don't really know what it's like to go through the job search right now. Things have changed since their last time on the job market — I know that because they have changed in just the few years since I began looking for jobs. Senior colleagues also can’t offer much advice about nontraditional paths into academic administration, since they mostly followed the traditional faculty career route.

I can find peer mentors outside of higher education, but they don’t always understand academia. For example, because of his tenured faculty position, my husband and I live half a country apart. While people in academia understand that (two-body problem!), I have countless friends and family members who think we are crazy (and they don't hesitate to let us know what they think). Additionally, most other industries have more formalized mentoring structures and more direct career paths than colleges and universities do. My peers in academia can understand these life choices a little better than my friends outside the ivory tower.

I would prefer to find peer mentors who are women but I’ve had just as much difficulty finding ones who are men. Here are some examples.

  • I recently went to a women's networking breakfast, organized by the American Council on Education. (These sorts of events for women are always scheduled for breakfast. Why is that? But that's for another article.) Of the 25 or so attendees, I'd guess that there were three of us under 40. The rest were all nearing retirement age. Again, these women were fantastic at sharing their stories, but they can't really provide peer mentoring.
  • I am president of the Alumnae-i Network for Harvard Women. We have a steering committee that, up until a couple of years ago, was entirely comprised of women in their 70s and 80s. Now that there are a few younger people in the group, I had hoped for a different type of peer networking and mentoring. But who are the most active participants? The women in their 80s. They have been invaluable role models and mentors to me (never mind their tireless work for the organization), but again, where are the women in their 30s and 40s? They are not very active on the committee, and they are not attending many of our events. This is a prime networking opportunity, and a prime place to meet people who can help support each other in a variety of careers. But how do we get them to attend?
  • This extends to men, too. I've been on another alumni leadership board since 2011. Early on, I was one of the youngest on the board … but somehow I still am. Men (and no women) of my generation have come and gone, and they've been fairly inactive during their terms. They don't come to the in-person meetings. They rarely attend the conference calls. They don't volunteer for subcommittees. I feel like the token “young” person (even though I'm not anymore) to whom everyone on the board looks when we start talking about young alumni engagement. That shouldn't have to be the case.

Yes, I'm talking about two different things here — alumni engagement and career networking/mentoring. But in academia, those two things are often linked. Lack of one hurts the other, and vice versa. I fear that young higher ed professionals, especially women, will become disenfranchised. They won't see anyone like them attending events and serving on boards, and there's a risk they could leave the field. I certainly feel that way.

Right now, I have no solutions other than to keep mentoring undergraduates, graduate students, and young professionals in their 20s and early 30s whom I meet on my campus and at other events. The women in the generation above me certainly support me, so I'll pay it forward. I just wish I could pay it sideways.

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