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SPA’s Graduate Student Mentoring Program Makes Vital Connections in Disconnected Times

New expanded program now serves all SPA graduate students

Research across disciplines has shown the general value of effective mentoring, with benefits extending across a wide range of behavioral, interpersonal, and career outcomes. The positive impacts on graduate students are even stronger, studies show. Mentees demonstrate greater research productivity and academic and professional success. They publish more, graduate more quickly, and are more likely to secure a tenure-track position.

In 2016, the School of Public Affairs (SPA) sought to formalize these mentoring relationships by creating the SPA International Graduate Student Mentoring Program. The original model matched second-year MPA and MPP international students with first-year MPA and MPP international mentees. More recently, under the leadership of Cris Dinu, assistant director of international graduate student development, its scope has expanded to include domestic students in both categories, and to cover all SPA graduate programs.

“I believe that the mentoring program serves as a career-building opportunity for both international and American students,” said Dinu. “Since most American students are working, they are a valuable resource that can offer not only advice but also connections and networking opportunities to international students.”  

Within two years, the program has exploded from a handful of participants to more than 80. “I received extremely positive feedback,” said Dinu. “Students felt that matching them with both international and American mentors helped them feel more connected to other SPA students and to our AU community in general.”

With the help of graduate assistant Thi Le (MPP, `22), Dinu tackles these match-making logistics each semester, sending applications to incoming and current SPA graduate students and then using information on nationality, professional experience, program, and research interests to pair them off.

“I think that the mentoring program is beneficial to our SPA graduate students because it allows students to gain personal insight on how to maneuver a master’s program and handle life,” said mentor Georgette Akpakli (MPAP, `22). “From hectic classes to life stressors, mentors can provide some guidance and advice on how to handle a certain situation or help develop a plan of action to address any concerns. This program also allows a friendship to grow through an academic platform that can turn into a lifelong friendship.”

Mentee Carla Froy (MPP, `22) agreed, and was thrilled to report on her experience. “My mentor, Julieta Gómez, is outstanding!” she said. “In fact, we became friends. She not only advises me in academic stuff but also in personal matters. It is super nice to have her support.”

Julieta Gómez (MPA, `21) reciprocated, and noted the particular importance of establishing these relationships during the pandemic. As AU classes went fully virtual, mentors worked hard to engage new students remotely, or safely in person. “It was most helpful in the past year,” she said, “where navigating graduate life was hard for everyone but especially for new students. The fact that the program is voluntary makes it truly constructive because only those willing (or needing) to participate do so, thus making exchanges and conversations more dynamic.”

Mentor Monica Behn (MPA, `21) sees the program as a virtuous cycle of experience and perspective. “As a mentor, I have assisted two first-year students with navigating graduate life in a new city and discussing career paths while building a lifelong friendship,” she said. “This program allows incoming students to connect with the university and immediately feel a part of the community. It also allows older students to share the knowledge they have learned so far at AU, while continuing in the spirit of friendship, mentorship, and service to others.”

Dinu is pleased to see the growth and positive reviews, and the realization of her short- and long-term goals, all of which align with the vision and purpose of SPA. “I presented the mentoring program as a volunteer opportunity for American and international students to support a fellow student in both academic and professional development, a chance to learn from another culture, and an Inclusive Excellence initiative to bring the SPA community closer together.”

Behn’s only regret is timing. “I highly recommend that this program continues on, and feel jealous that it was not around when I entered AU,” she said.

For more information about the SPA Graduate Student Mentoring Program, contact Cris Dinu at cdinu@american.edu.