17 Mentoring Redesigned to Attract Entry-Level Students

Timothy Schroeder; Tara S. Hackel; and Yadéeh E. Sawyer


Competitive and highly structured mentoring relationships between undergraduate students and professional researchers are often life-changing. However, such mentoring programs often have rigid qualifications and attract students who are already advanced in their educational and professional planning. The University of New Mexico (UNM) developed a program to shift the paradigm to attract entry-level students for whom “professional research” was still a new and daunting concept. By pairing these students with engineers and scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory, UNM was able to engage students in structured, low-stakes mentoring that helped shape their current understanding of research, and illuminated career pathways and opportunities in their chosen academic disciplines. The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Collaborative Center staff recruited entry-level UNM students as mentees and recruited engineers and scientists as mentors. UNM then matched ​mentor-mentee pairs using an interest form, hosted introductory events for pairs to meet on campus, and followed up with mentors and mentees to provide support and promote ongoing conversations. Students who participated in this program were more likely than their peers to persist at UNM.

Correspondence and questions about this chapter should be sent to the first author: timschroeder@unm.edu

Mentoring Context and Program Development

The Need for This Program

The University of New Mexico (UNM) serves a student population rich in diversity, with Hispanic students accounting for 50% of enrolled students, Black students accounting for 3%, and American Indian students accounting for 6%. However, UNM also serves a low-income population, with 47% of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students receiving Pell Grants. As a result, many UNM students rely on part-time and full-time off-campus employment. In addition, nearly 40% of entering students are first-generation. This creates a need for highly flexible mentoring programs that can accommodate busy schedules while still empowering new students to ease into academic engagement programs.

Purpose and Objectives of the Program

A defining characteristic of the UNM STEM Mentoring program is ease of entry. The student participation application form is short and does not require references or a formal essay. Acceptance is noncompetitive, and neither GPA nor citizenship status are collected or considered for participation. While competitive mentoring programs are important, and often provide more comprehensive support, they often serve smaller populations and focus resources on students with strong academic track records. The UNM STEM Mentoring program instead focuses on introducing students to research pathways gradually without considering prior academic performance. In turn, an important goal of the program is to prepare students to participate in deeper and more competitive programs later.

Organizational Setting and Population Served

UNM is situated in a state rich in diversity but encompassing extremes in socioeconomic status and educational attainment. Among all US states, New Mexico has the second-highest percentage of persons living in poverty (Shrider et al., 2021) and the third-highest high school drop-out rate (McFarland et al., 2020). However, New Mexico is also home to two of eighteen national laboratories and one federal military research laboratory. Of these three, two are located in close proximity to UNM: Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia) and Airforce National Research Laboratory (AFRL). Sandia alone employs more than 14,000 individuals who have collectively earned 2,664 bachelor’s degrees, 4,891 master’s degrees, and 2,205 doctorates (Sandia National Laboratories, 2021).

Through the UNM STEM Mentoring program, we leverage this easily accessible workforce of engineers and scientists to mentor undergraduates, including many students from first-generation families and underfunded rural public-school systems. Of particular focus in the creation of this program were first- and second-year college students, students who had little to no prior exposure to professional researchers, and students from high schools with limited science, technology, or engineering course options. Accordingly, we designed a mentoring program that is noncompetitive, low-stakes, easily accessible, and that allows students to vary their engagements to fit substantial off-campus employment schedules.

Organization Support for Mentoring Program and Infrastructure

The UNM STEM Collaborative Center (STCC) grant was not originally written to fund a mentoring program. During the first year of the grant, to find collaborators for other STCC projects, we met with the AFRL Women’s Forum. This group, consisting of women engineers and scientists, requested the creation of the STEM Mentoring program. They mentioned that AFRL regularly hires undergrads for summer internships but that UNM students are rarely competitive in the national applicant pool. UNM students needed more experience and connections to compete for the AFRL summer internships. As a result of this conversation, we launched the UNM STEM Mentoring program, and Women’s Forum members formed the first mentor pool (Duncan, 2016; Dailey, 2017).

Eventually, these AFRL mentors suggested we contact Sandia researchers and engineers, who also wanted to participate as mentors. This led to a conversation between UNM and the Sandia Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) employee resource group. These employee resource groups (ERGs) are often dedicated to mentoring people from their identity groups, including women, LGBTQ people, and professionals from various ethnicities. ERGs make a great pool to recruit from for finding underrepresented STEM professionals. Shortly after meeting with WISE, Sandia personnel joined the UNM STEM Mentoring program as mentors. As word of the program spread, engineers and scientists from other organizations reached out to us to volunteer to serve as mentors, further expanding the number of matched mentoring pairs. The majority of mentor and mentee participants are from engineering and computing fields, with the occasional pairing within mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, biochemistry, and biology.

Operational Definition

In developing this program, we operationalized mentoring as “Mentoring occurs when a senior person or mentor provides information, advice, and emotional support to a junior person or student over a period of time” (Lev et al., 2010). Through these mentoring relationships, we seek to shape student understanding of research and illuminate career pathways and opportunities in their chosen academic disciplines. The UNM STEM Mentoring program also helps students reflect on the value of mentoring, helping to establish the expectation that mentoring would form a crucial component of their lifelong education.

The majority of mentoring occurred through traditional academic mentoring relationships, where individual student participants were paired one-to-one with experienced scientists and engineers. However, as the program progressed, additional mentoring relationships were established utilizing a one-to-one peer mentoring approach. For these relationships, we most often paired juniors and seniors with freshman and sophomore students.

Mentoring Inputs and Resources


The first 4 years of the STEM Mentoring program were sponsored by the STCC, with funding provided by the US Department of Education. Coordination was provided as part of the duties of one full-time staff member and required an average of 10 hours per week throughout the semester.

After the conclusion of the STCC’s nonrenewable grant, the UNM STEM Mentoring program was transferred to the School of Engineering’s Engineering Student Success Center (ESS).

Mentoring Activities

Recruitment Activities

Each semester, we recruit entry-level UNM students as mentees through both general advertising and direct emails to the target population. This process includes outreach to academic advisors and campus-based ethnic centers, who work closely with entry-level students and can help identify those who would most benefit from participation. We recruit STEM professionals (engineers and scientists) as mentors through direct contacts with current mentors, word of mouth, and requests for marketing with key contacts within AFRL and Sandia.

Matching Activities

Each interested mentor and mentee participant is asked to complete an interest form (Appendices A and B) that includes basic contact and foundational information (for instance, academic discipline) but later evolved to include optional preference questions to better match mentees and mentors. Additionally, mentors are asked about their personal, educational, and professional backgrounds and what they believe the role of a mentor to be.

This latter question is of particular importance in pairing mentor and mentee. As the program targets early students, it would be unwise to pair students who are still developing their professionalism with mentors who expect students to have already mastered professional engagement behaviors.

Students are asked why they were interested in the program; their academic, professional, and personal interests or backgrounds; and their preferred mentor characteristics. Initially, the matching forms did not include demographic information or schedule availability for mentors or mentees. However, based on recurring requests, scheduling conflicts, and feedback on the process, these were later included on the forms as optional fields. Students can prioritize mentors with identities that are not typically found on mentor interest forms (Appendix A), such as Spanish-speaker, parent, LGBTQ+, and so on. This allows students to be matched with mentors who might be able to relate to their cultural backgrounds as they navigate STEM.

Once the semester deadline to join the program passes, the program coordinator pools and reviews all forms, and then matches mentors and mentees based on the best fit, prioritizing first- and second-year undergraduate students.

Training Activities

Once accepted, students are required to attend a 1-hour orientation session, which focuses on program expectations and tips for success. Students learn what mentoring is and what it takes to make that relationship effective. During the semester, there are no required events or documentation the student or pair must complete, but we encourage a 1-hour-per-week face-to-face commitment, one semester at a time. The orientation also addresses the logistics of communication, stresses the importance of sticking to commitments, teaches how to write a professional email, and encourages the development of a verbal or written memo of understanding with their mentor. The final portion of the orientation is focused on setting goals for the relationship within the scope of the program. We also provide mentees with a mentee questionnaire that we encourage them to complete and share with their mentor in their introductory email. This helps to get the conversation started and guides the mentor on the type of support the student is looking for.

There are no formal trainings or requirements for the mentors beyond the interest form, but we provide mentors with a handbook to help guide them on their roles and responsibilities, program expectations, and campus resources (for instance, the UNM Women’s Resource Center). The handbook also provides mentors with tips on how to move into meaningful conversations and a list of potential meeting topics in case the mentee did not come with a list of them.

Strategies to Monitor and Support Relationships

To ensure a smooth mentor/mentee pairing, each semester begins with a STEM mixer event. All program participants are encouraged to join the event as an easy opportunity to meet their match, and to meet other students and mentors in the program, as well as potential participants to get a preview of the program.

After this mixer, program staff reach out to all mentors and mentees approximately three times per semester to check in and open the communication dialogue, but they encourage more frequent communications as needed.

Throughout the semester, one-on-one mentoring meetings most often occur at coffee shops or on campus, and occasionally at the mentor’s place of employment. The program asks for a commitment of one semester at a time from mentors and mentees, as the needs of both the students and mentors are fluid and highly tied to the demands of any given semester’s courses (students) and workload (students and mentors). At the end of each semester, both parties are given the opportunity to stay in the program as a pair, stay in the program, be assigned a new match, step away from the program, or be co-mentors. As the program grew and mentees remained with the same mentor for multiple semesters, they would sometimes team up to co-mentor a new student. This provided the original mentee the opportunity to see the mentoring relationship from the other side while maintaining the connection and opportunity for guidance from their mentor.

Mentoring Outputs

During the first 4 years, we served more than 200 matched pairs. The program now has mentors from over 14 organizations and companies, including all three national labs within New Mexico (AFRL, Sandia, and Los Alamos National Lab). Between fall 2019 and spring 2021, we served more than 250 mentoring pairs through ESS.

Mentoring Outcomes and Lessons Learned


During the fourth and final year of the Title V grant, we conducted our most comprehensive analysis of impact on student academic performance. Table 17.1 compares the diversity and academic performance of STCC mentoring participants to other UNM STEM undergraduate students. Despite including more freshmen and sophomores and students from low-income families (populations with traditionally lower college-persistence rates), STCC mentoring participants were retained at higher rates than their peers.

Table 17.1

Participant Demographics and Outcomes

STCC mentoring participants All UNM STEM undergraduates
Number of students in population 64 11,046
Percent American Indian, Black, or Hispanic 59% 55%
Percent from low-income families, spring semester 37% 32%
Percent freshmen and sophomores 59% 37%
Next-semester retention for students at all academic levels 97% 89%
Next-year retention for freshmen students 82% 74%


Sustaining the Program

The staff coordinator position for the UNM STEM Mentoring program is now funded through a budget line item with the ESS Center within the School of Engineering. The duties associated with running the program account for a portion of the staff duties.

Lessons Learned

Throughout the UNM STEM Mentoring program, the staff made several key discoveries. Early on in the program, there were more mentees than mentors available, and some students were turned away. However, as the program grew, the tables turned, and the program now consistently has more mentors than students. The general recruitment efforts attract fewer mentees than direct emails with the opportunities. Staff continue to seek new methods for attracting students, especially first- and second-year students from underserved populations.

In addition, most interactions, feedback, and commentary through the semester from both mentors and mentees result from the regular check-ins from program staff, rather than either mentor or mentee initiating the communications. This suggests these regular check-ins are vital to helping those who have questions about resources, meeting topics or goals, or have unresponsive matches.

We also learned the value of being responsive to expert guidance. For example, we did not originally plan to create a mentoring program, but after listening to local professionals, we ended up serving 40–60 students per semester with a truly meaningful experience. The same goes for the co-mentoring. This approach was suggested by one of the AFRL mentors. As a result, we piloted the approach and found it to be impactful. The resulting program change significantly improved the experience for mentors and mentees alike.

Keeping the program informal without competitive entry barriers, time requirements, or documents to submit allowed mentors and mentees to engage with each other at a level that was accessible for them. Some matches only met a few times, while others met weekly. If we had mandated weekly meetings, the lower-engagement students would not have a mentor.

Finally, the local STEM industry makes it easy to find mentors and recruit mentors through word of mouth. Once you recruit one mentor from a large organization, it is easy to recruit more. Further, these organizations tend to run formal internship programs for undergraduate students. STEM students who have heard about the importance of internships are motivated to build connections with employees at these organizations to improve their ability to obtain internships. Then, once employed as interns, these students are more likely to be hired on after graduation. Many UNM students want to stay near family locally after graduation. This mentoring program helps support the internship-to-job pipeline for local students at these competitive STEM laboratories and other local companies and organizations.



Dailey, J. (2017, January 11). AFRL, UNM collaborate to mentor undergrads. University of New Mexico. http://news.unm.edu/news/afrl-unm-collaborate-to-mentor-undergrads

Duncan, A. (2016). AFRL, UNM partner in mentoring program. Kirtland Air Force Base. https://www.kirtland.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/817242/afrl-unm-partner-in-mentoring-program/

Lev, L., Kolassa, J., & Bakken, L. (2010). Faculty mentors’ and students’ perceptions of students’ research self-efficacy. Nurse Education Today, 30(2), 169–174. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2009.07.007

McFarland, J., Cui, J., Holmes, J., & Wang, X. (2020, January). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 2019: Compendium report. Institute for Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2020/2020117.pdf

Sandia National Laboratories. (2021). Sandia national laboratories by the numbers. Sandia National Laboratories. Retrieved on October 17, 2022, from https://www.sandia.gov/app/uploads/sites/165/2022/03/SNL_Numbers-Overview_2021.pdf

Shrider, E. A., Kollar, M., Chen, F., & Semega, J. (2021, September). Income and poverty in the United States: 2020 (Report No. P60-273. Table: Percentage of People in Poverty by State Using 2- and 3-Year Averages: 2017-2018 and 2019-2020). United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2021/demo/income-poverty/p60-273.html


Appendix A

Mentor Interest Form Fields

General Information (information WILL be shared with the match)

  • Name (please include ranking or appropriate prefix/suffix when applicable)
  • Company/organization
  • UNM School of Engineering department/field affiliation
  • Preferred phone number
  • Preferred email
  • Additional contact information (i.e., personal phone or email)
  • Degree
  • Field(s) of interest


Demographic Information (information will NOT be shared with the match and are for internal matching only)

  • Race/ethnicity
  • Gender
  • What pronouns should we use when referring to you?
  • Age
  • Religious/spiritual affiliation
  • Family status/caregiver status
  • Are you a first-generation student?
  • Military service
  • Languages spoken
  • Schedule availability
  • Under non-pandemic conditions, does your student match need access to their own transportation off-campus?

Mentoring- and Matching-Related Questions (information will NOT be shared with the match and are for internal matching only)

  • Are you open to fully virtual interactions until COVID-19 concerns are no longer a factor in social interactions?
  • Under non-pandemic conditions, are you open to fully virtual interactions?
  • Are you a UNM SoE alumnus?
  • Please briefly describe your personal (extra-curricular), educational, and professional background/interests to help us match you with a student.
  • What do you believe is the role of a mentor in a mentoring relationship between an undergraduate student and a professional scientist or engineer?
  • What type of student do you feel MOST comfortable mentoring?
  • What type of student do you feel LEAST comfortable mentoring?

Additional Information (information will NOT be shared with the match and are for internal matching only)

  • What is something you learned in undergrad that you want to share with the students? This can include a key to success or a failure you learned from.
  • Please provide any other information that can help us match you with a student.
  • If you can accommodate a student who is not a US citizen, please indicate this here.

Appendix B

Student Interest Form Fields

General Information (information WILL be shared with the match)

  • Name
  • UNM ID number
  • Email
  • Phone
  • Are you OK with us sharing your phone number with your assigned mentor?
  • Current major/field of interest/undecided
  • What academic level student are you (i.e., freshman, sophomore, junior, senior)?

STEM Mentoring program orientation

  • Which STEM-Mentoring program orientation date will you attend?
  • Do you plan to attend your orientation session live (in-person) or virtual (via Zoom)?


Citizenship Acknowledgement (information will NOT be shared with the match and are for internal matching only)

  • You must be a US citizen to receive a mentor from Air Force Research Laboratory or Sandia National Laboratories in the UNM STEM Mentoring program. Mentors outside of these organizations generally do not require US citizenship.
    • o I understand that the UNM STEM Mentoring program requires US citizenship to be matched with a mentor from AFRL or SNL, and I am open to a mentor from these organizations.
    • o I am only open to mentors from organizations outside of AFRL and SNL.


Demographic Information (information will NOT be shared with the match and are for internal matching only)

  • Race/ethnicity
  • Gender
  • What pronouns should we use when referring to you?
  • Age
  • Religious/spiritual affiliation
  • Family status/caregiver status
  • Are you a first-generation student?
  • Military service
  • Languages spoken
  • Schedule availability
  • What form of transportation do you have access to?


Mentoring and Matching Related Questions (information will NOT be shared with the match and are for internal matching only)

  • Are you open to fully virtual interactions until COVID-19 concerns are no longer a factor in social interactions?
  • Under non-pandemic conditions, are you open to fully virtual interactions?
  • Why are you interested in the UNM STEM mentoring program?
  • What are two or three things you want your mentor to know about your academic, professional, and personal (extra-curricular) interests/background?
  • Rank your three most preferred mentor characteristics.

Additional Information (information will NOT be shared with the match and are for internal matching only)

  • Please provide any other information that can help us match you with a mentor.
  • I understand that the UNM Student Code of Conduct applies to me during all activities associated with the program. I understand that UNM has the right to enforce the Student Code of Conduct and that sanctions may be imposed for violations, up to and including dismissal from the program and expulsion from UNM. I acknowledge that there are risks and dangers associated with this program and that all risks cannot be prevented. The risks and hazards of this program can result in injury to me, death, and/or property damage. Knowing the risks and hazards, I hereby waive, release, and discharge any and all claims for damage, death, personal injury, and/or property damage against UNM, its officers, employees, or agents, which I may have, or which may hereafter occur to me as a result of my participation in the program.
  • I understand that there will be photos taken throughout this program.



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Making Connections Copyright © 2023 by Timothy Schroeder; Tara S. Hackel; and Yadéeh E. Sawyer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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