Julia Kawas connected with an unlikely source while preparing for medical school – a Hokie on a similar journey hundreds of miles away.

“It’s very helpful to talk with someone who has gone through what you’re going through,” said Kawas, a third-year Virginia Tech student studying physics who will apply to medical schools next summer. “To just have someone to say, ‘hey, you’ve gone through this process, am I doing something wrong? Am I doing something right?’”

Answers to those questions and others were provided to Kawas when she was connected with an alumna currently in medical school through the pilot program for Hokie Mentorship Connect, which will debut to all undergraduate students this fall.

“The program is a lot more personalized than anything else you’ll find on campus,” Kawas said. “You get their [the mentors’] firsthand insights into how you’re doing to prepare for the role you want to take on after you graduate.”

A joint effort between Virginia Tech Career and Professional Development and the Virginia Tech Alumni Relations, Hokie Mentorship Connect is an online platform that matches current Virginia Tech students with Hokies who took similar paths through college and beyond in order to foster career-related relationships.

“You don’t have to be an expert … just be who you needed,” said Joy Capers, program coordinator of Hokie Mentorship Connect. “Sometimes it just takes someone who is a few steps ahead of you to reach back and share some information about some hurdles in their own experience for you to know you’re not alone.”

The service won’t replace any of the other ongoing mentorship programs on campus, but rather will allow students to tap into a different type of advice and support.

“About 80 percent of our current mentorship programs on campus are peer-to-peer,” said Capers, who is also the assistant director for mentorship programs for Career and Professional Development. “We want students to utilize that, but we also want them to have access to our great alumni network.”

Kimberly Williams was one of 30 alums who took part in the program's pilot, last spring.

A woman smiling.
Kimberly Williams was one of 30 alumni who took part in the program's pilot last spring.

Hokie Mentorship Connect came about in part as a result of the emphasis President Tim Sands has always placed on the importance of mentorship and was piloted with 30 alumni and students this spring, said Donna Ratcliffe, director of Career and Professional Development at Virginia Tech.

“It was really a great success,” said Ratcliffe, who also served as a mentor during the pilot. “For me, it was really fun getting to meet with that student for more than just the normal resume critique.”

The pilot utilized the program’s one-on-one sessions between mentors and mentees, which is just one of the three types of mentorship opportunities the platform offers, managed by Capers.

Other options include “flash mentoring,” a format in which alumni can answer one-off questions from students, and discussion boards that can be organized by topic, career field, or major, and can be utilized by other Virginia Tech mentor groups. Capers believes all the options could also serve as resources for career-related classroom assignments.

The platform will be available to undergraduate students with first-year students limited to the flash mentoring and discussion board options in the hopes of instead directing them towards existing one-on-one peer mentorship programs.

Like the students, the alumni who took part in the pilot said they too benefited from the experience and appreciated having a streamlined vehicle for giving back this way.

“Young alumni especially have the time to donate back to the university, but they don’t always have the funds,” said Bradley de Wet ’10, a member of the Student Affairs Young Alumni Board. “To me it seems like a no-brainer to have this type of more structured mentoring program.”

Already, more than 900 alumni have signed on to be a mentor when the program officially launches in September.

De Wet said the program’s structure was flexible, but provided enough guidance that a person with no previous mentoring experience could feel comfortable.

“I would say this is a really good way for someone who has not done a lot of student mentoring to get in fairly comfortably,” he said. “It’s a good way to start without having to take too much of a risk.”

Formerly the director for Virginia Tech’s Black Cultural Center, pilot program mentor Kimberly Williams ’09 has experience with a variety of other mentorship programs. She said Hokie Mentorship Connect is different because it allows by the mentee to bypass some of the awkwardness that often accompanies finding a mentor.

“It’s specifically aligned for this goal, so it bypasses the anxiety and trepidation that comes with going into other settings,” Williams said. “It’s a safe space. The people there want to help you.”

It was that type of environment that encouraged first-year student Keyara Johnson, who is studying business management and was Ratcliffe’s mentee, to better prepare for her future by taking full advantage of all Virginia Tech has to offer.

“It was so cool how I could talk to her on a professional level and then two seconds later, I could talk to her on a personal level,” Johnson said. “I feel like she improved my thoughts about college … she pushed me to branch out into the Tech community.”

Information Sessions about Hokie Mentorship Connect will be held in Room A of the Smith Career Center at the following times:

  • Sept. 16 – 9-10 a.m. and 1:30-2:30 p.m.
  • Sept. 17 – 3:30–4:30 p.m.
  • Sept. 18 – 9–10 a.m. and noon–1 p.m.
  • Sept. 19 – 1:30–2:30 p.m. and 3–4 p.m.
  • Sept. 20 – noon–1 p.m. and 2:30–3:30 p.m.
  • Sept. 23 – 1–2 p.m.
  • Sept. 24 – 1–2 p.m.
  • Sept. 25 – 9–10 a.m., 11 a.m.–noon, and 1–2 p.m.

— Written by Travis Williams